A Ravishingly Conducted SWEENEY TODD — Review
At long last, a full-scale production of Sweeney Todd returns to Broadway, allowing Stephen Sondheim’s gorgeous music and lyrics to bolster the richness of Hugh Wheeler’s book, which follows the bloody exploits of a barber returned to Victorian London to slit the throats of those who wrongly sentenced him to years in a penal colony.
Though starring a golden-voiced Josh Groban as the titular Demon Barber of Fleet Street and a very funny Annaleigh Ashford as his lover and accomplice Mrs. Lovett, it both is and isn’t the theatre lover’s Sweeney. Aficionados can’t miss the chance to hear most of* Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations, ravishingly conducted by Alex Lacamoire, and sung with swoon-worthy clarity by the entire cast — but they will have notes.
* “Most of” because, though the production touts a faithful recreation, it’s still missing certain standout elements, like that ear-piercing factory whistle, found in the 1979 recording. And the bulk of my notes, not coincidentally, fall in line with the very first one I jotted down, upon noticing the startling lack of whistle in the show’s prelude.
Sondheim’s score, sweeping and cinematic, is also terrifying. Even listening to the original cast album at home, in daylight, can have you jumping from your seat. But this production shies away from the “hole in the world, like a great black pit” of which Sweeney sings. It’s still morbid and gruesome, but no longer nasty and macabre.
Groban impressively acquits himself as an actor (the vocals were never in question) but is directed, as is the rest of the cast, to play the role as a rational one. Sweeney’s yearslong, one-track minded pursuit to avenge his wife is not a scorched-earth nihilism towards humanity, but a logical solution to an irksome problem. Mrs. Lovett’s idea to throw everyone around her into the grinder is borne, not out of desperation, but simply savvy. Ashford’s trademark quirkiness and appeal, typically a winning formula, don’t help the production’s need for grit.
Only Jamie Jackson (as Judge Turpin) and Ruthie Ann Miles (as the Beggar Woman), are allowed to gaze deeply into the melodramatic abyss of their characters, really exploring the depravity that underscores the ghastly, cynical plot.
These choices don’t stop the show from working (Sondheim and Wheeler’s craftsmanship is unsinkable), but do defang what should be a blood-curdling night of theatre. Call it the Hamilton nicewashing effect, carrying over from the 2016 musical on which Kail, Lacaimore, and sound designer Nevin Steinberg worked. Darkness is felt in the distance, but is kept at bay through grand romance instead of Grand Guignol.
But these are an aficionado’s notes.
The production is otherwise excellent, if sometimes overshadowed by Mimi Lien’s towering sets, which is lit with knife-sharp precision by Natasha Katz. All can agree, I assume, that Steven Hoggett’s overly expressionistic choreography, however, is barely a step up from So You Think You Can Dance.
As the youth that will inherit a grisly future, Jordan Fisher, Maria Bilbao, and Gaten Matarazzo are believably loving and naive. And as two of Sweeney’s obstacles, John Rapson and Nicholas Christopher are tastily mustache-twirling.
Sweeney Todd is, after all, a testament to Sondheim’s brilliance, and ability to populate a stage with differing viewpoints, sometimes from within the same person, and present them as not only understandable, but profoundly relatable. Give or take a few quirks, this top-shelf production more than capably delivers his goods.
Sweeney Todd is in performance at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on West 46th Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.