Sometimes, when you want to attend a big Broadway show, you are on the hunt for laughs, bright lights, and levity. Other times, you may want a small, intimate chamber musical.
Then there are the rare times you crave a thrilling, murderous affair complete with blood, gore, and a gorgeous serving of revenge operatic in scale and depth. And that’s precisely what’s on the menu at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater on Broadway, where Sweeney Todd is “killing” it eight times a week. This is big and bold, boasting a cast of 25 onstage and 26 musicians in the orchestra, giving the proceedings an appropriate sense of grandness.
Not since the original Broadway production in 1979 has such a full-figured Sweeney Todd stalked the stages of New York City. In 2005, director John Doyle served up his much smaller-scale actor/musician production featuring Patti LuPone. And in 2017 came the intimate, immersive off-Broadway incarnation at Barrow Street Theatre.
Starring pop recording artist and Tony Award nominee Josh Groban (Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812) and Tony Award winner Annaleigh Ashford (Kinky Boots, Sunday in the Park with George), the new Broadway revival – directed by Thomas Kail (Hamilton) – gives Sweeney fans the darkness and deeply psychological musical drama they’ve been yearning for. Here’s the teaser video for the show, setting the appropriately ominous tone.
For those unfamiliar with the story: In 19th century London, Sweeney Todd, an unjustly exiled barber, returns home after fifteen years imprisoned in a penal colony. He seeks vengeance against a lecherous judge and his spineless henchman who framed him. He plans to reunite with his wife and daughter but soon learns Judge Turpin raped his wife and took daughter Johanna in as his ward. With revenge as his goal, Sweeney re-opens his barbershop in its old location above the pie shop of Mrs. Lovett. Enamored of Sweeney, the deranged Lovett comes up with an idea to dispose of the bodies by baking them into her meat pies. Business booms, but Sweeney’s bloodlust leads to chaos and carnage.
Of course, one of the most satisfying elements of Sweeney Todd is the legendary, richly-layered Stephen Sondheim score often performed amid terrifying, dramatically taut moments such as the romantic “Pretty Women” sung just as Sweeney seeks to exact his revenge on the judge who set Sweeney’s life adrift.
Kail imbues the production with a cool, distant touch that seems entirely suitable for the tale of a serial murderer. And his eye for specificity is evident in the clarity of his actors’ choices.
Groban isn’t quite as unhinged or depraved as Sweeney as we’ve seen in the past. While he’s clearly determined to exact his revenge, he sometimes sings with closed eyes and head tilted back, almost swooning in the painful memories driving his murderous ways. But, by the time we reach Sweeney’s Act One showstopper “Epiphany,” trust and believe Groban delivers the rich, soaring vocals the audience has come to savor.
Annaleigh Ashford, a brilliant comic actress, is exhilarating as she brings the love-lorn Mrs. Lovett to life with loads of physical humor and openly lusts for Sweeney in their one-sided relationship. With a broad cockney accent and a fearless approach to comedy, Ashford brings balance to the production’s dark tone. She and Groban pair well in the Act One ender “A Little Priest,” which scores more laughs than usual as the duo clearly enjoy attempting to top each other with dark remarks.
Gaten Matarazzo (of Stranger Things) is a sensitive and charming Tobias, delivering one of the production’s high points with his uncluttered and affecting take on “Not While I’m Around.”
Daniel Yearwood’s Anthony, the young sailor who befriends Sweeney before unknowingly falling in love with his daughter, serves up the Sondheim classic “Johanna” with power and yearning.
Jamie Jackson is perfectly lecherous as the crooked Judge Turpin, who sentenced Sweeney to prison in order to rape his wife and kidnap his daughter. John Rapson is well-cast as Turpin’s lackey, Beadle Bamford, who helped the judge frame Sweeney.
And Ruthie Ann Miles, a Tony winner for The King and I, clearly understood the assignment as the mysterious Beggar Woman. She makes you wish the role were larger, but for those who know, there’s a reason for that.
Steven Hoggett’s choreography culls more movement from the ensemble than other incarnations of the show, and it works beautifully as the actors weave in and out of the artful, dramatic lighting by Natasha Katz. And Mimi Lien’s enormous, shape-shifting set looms large over the company, framing moments large and small with deft efficiency.
For fans of Broadway musicals, and especially fans of Sondheim, this revival of Sweeney Todd is a must-see. Not only do you get your money’s worth in a dark, sexy spectacle, but rare are the opportunities to revel in revenge and murder in such a melodic manner. (Five stars)
Check out several video excerpts from the show, plus interviews with the stars in this clip from CBS Sunday Morning.