The Broadway Theatre Review: Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
“How it shines in the light,” one might say, or sing as they take in the gloriously sounding, extremely entertaining, and supremely well-performed revival of one of Stephen Sondheim’s all-time best musicals (now there’s a debate that can rattle on for decades). Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is definitely one of his finest, and is most assuredly one of my favorite musicals of all, just below Sunday in the Park with George, and just above Company and Sweeney’s most likely Tony Award for Best Revival competition, Into The Woods (now that’s going to be an incredible race to the finishing line – my guess, these two, plus Parade, and maybe Camelot will get nominated?). And I’m not just talking about Sondheim shows. I’m talking about musicals in general, and as played out big and strong on the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre stage, with that big and full orchestra sound under the command of music supervisor/conductor Alex LaCamoire (Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen) with original orchestrations by the illustrious Jonathan Tunick (Broadway’s The Music Man) and music coordination by David Lai (Broadway’s Hadestown), this show is as gorgeous as one could hope for. It’s basically unstoppable. Even as the crowd roars its approval to an almost deafening level after each song, making it difficult for this esteemed group of actors to move the performance forward.
As directed with a wise witty slant by Thomas Kail (Broadway’s Hamilton), Sweeney happily flings itself deep into the dirt and grime of Fleet Street, London finding dark humor and revenge in every corner of that wide stage. With the solidly astounding book by Hugh Wheeler (A Little Night Music) adapted beautifully by Christopher Bond (Dracula), this full-scale rendering underneath the hanging ominous crane, encapsulates dread and danger, while also laughing alongside the bloody mess. The dark energy of instability engages, enhanced by the off-kilter dynamic choreographer of Steven Hoggett (Broadway’s Harry Potter…) that only occasionally gets in the way of itself by becoming distracting and unrequited at odd moments, like the parade of women in the background and the silhouetted tableau storytelling that happens when Mrs. Lovett is weaving her sad tale of Benjamin Barker’s wife. I didn’t know where to look. Yet, mostly, it shifts and slants the diabolical proposition beautifully and abstractly, ushering in the two leads we are all anxiously waiting for; Josh Groban (Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre…) as the murderous Sweeney Todd, and his legendary sidekick, Mrs. Lovett, played to hilarious perfection by the astounding Annaleigh Ashford (Broadway’s Sunday in the Park…; Kinky Boots).
Groban astonishes, in a part that I was never really convinced he could pull off. We all knew his voice would deliver beautifully, and it does. His “Pretty Women” vocals are as gloriously delicious as one could ever hope for, but it is in his menacing glare where we find a Sweeney that we can also be afraid of. His slicing and dicing is as cold and cruel as can be, matched most perfectly by the possibly too-young presence of Ashford who crafts a Mrs. Lovett that is as funny as she is desperate, and it is in that manic imbalance where she heightens her performance to unquestionable exciting levels of comic intensity. It is true that Ashford is one of those performers who sounds delicious while also finding the joke and the idiosyncracies in a role like no other. Here, in her performance, she has mixed and baked this woman to the perfect boiling point, so much so that we just want to bite into her and savor her performance forever.
The rest of the crew most beautifully demands to be seen and utterly valued. Gaten Matarazzo (Broadway’s Priscilla Queen…; “Stranger Things“) gives a tender meaningful performance as Tobias, and Ruthie Ann Miles (Broadway’s The King and I) puts forth a Beggar Woman that is compellingly difficult to ignore. She folds in flavors of remembrance most wisely, giving glimpses of sadness and memory underneath the dirty facade of insanity. Jamie Jackson (Broadway’s Dr. Zhivago) as Judge Turpin, John Rapson (Barrow St’s Sweeney Todd…) as Beadle Bamford, and Nicholas Christopher (Pantages’ Hamilton) as Pirelli, all find the diabolical intensity required, while singing gloriously throughout. Costumed gorgeously by Emilio Sosa (Broadway’s Trouble in Mind) with a meandering unbalanced sound design by Nevin Steinberg (Broadway’s Tina), the cast, including all in the ensemble, brings vocal expertise to the forefront, elevating the chorus to sharp and cutting heights throughout this well-mapped out production.
With the stage designed by Mimi Lien (RTC’s True West), the cast ascends into the darkness, expertly lit by Natasha Katz (Broadway’s Some Like it Hot), bringing that big thick sound forward and engulfing us in its menace. The second level playing field, which floats up and down as the story gets going, tends to distance itself a bit too much during some precious moments of engagement, particularly the scenes that focus on Johanna, played to nervous edgy perfection by Maria Bilbao (Bay Street’s Anna in the Tropics) and Anthony, played tenderly by Jordan Fisher (Fox’s “Rent: Live“). We feel far removed from their intimacy, with the spacing drawing the action away from our hungry eyes and ears, yet Bilbao’s delectable Johanna and her twitchy nervousness save the day, pulling us in, even as we struggle to stay attached behind the railing so far back in the recesses of the balcony.
But it’s Groban and his love song to his precious barber blades, and Ashford’s clingy and desperate needy desire for Sweeney’s kiss that sells the meat pies (and those tickets). Their expert renderings make a delicious meal out of this captivatingly entertaining revival of Sweeney Todd. Now, I will say that it doesn’t exactly erase my extreme love of the pared-down revival back in 2005 that starred Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone; those two still remain my all-time favorite diabolical duo. Their deep dive into madness is unparalleled, but as a fully fleshed-out production, with that tasty-sounding big orchestra, this is a Sweeney Todd that should not be missed. It most definitely will be lining up the nominations over the next few months, with some wins here and there (I’m sorry to say, I think Ashford is going to have to step aside for Victoria Clark this year in her youthful Kimberly Akimbo performance, but not because Ashford isn’t completely deserving). And I will be there, cheering this production on, just like that ever so enthusiastic audience that was in the theatre the night I was so lucky to “attend the tale” of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It’s too good, at least.
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