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Theatre in Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Lunt-Fontanne Theatre)

Josh Groban, Annaleigh Ashford. Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Since its 1979 debut, we've had revivals of Sweeney Todd six ways from Sunday: in-the-round, with actors doubling as musicians, and the drastically scaled-down pie-shop version, complete with dinner. All had their points, but it's a thrill to have Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece back at full scale; Thomas Kail's sweeping staging, with its large ensemble and an orchestra of 26, restores the piece's dark grandeur, leaving plenty of room for the title character to cut a bloody swath across the stage. It's the grand opera of musical theatre, a tale of mass murder, deception, and rape set to an achingly romantic score, and Broadway audiences haven't heard it in all its glory in nearly half a century. If this isn't a perfect production, it's often frighteningly good. No fan of the show will want to miss it; anyone seeing it for the first time should brace for a revelatory shock.

Perhaps the revival's biggest surprise is Josh Groban, who, when first announced, seemed a bit of a stretch for the title role. Time has allowed him to shed his boyish demeanor, however; he has acquired a new gravity and his voice comfortably embraces the role's lower range. Bearded, a haunted look in his eyes (Sweeney is given to "hearing the music that nobody hears"), and possessed of swift and unexpected furies, he is a commanding figure, hopelessly mired in the past and driven by a gnawing sense of injustice. (For good reason; to recap: Fifteen years earlier, Judge Turpin, the "pious vulture of the law," railroaded Todd into a prison sentence, shipping him off to Australia. Turpin then helped himself to Todd's distraught wife, Lucy, keeping as his ward Todd's daughter, Johanna, whom he openly covets.

Groban's lyric baritenor combines with Todd's savage intentions to singularly macabre effect. He immediately impresses with "The Barber and His Wife" a scene-setting number that hints at the character's tightly coiled fury. Gooseflesh is raised when Todd, picking up his long-abandoned razor, declaims, "At last, my right arm is complete again!" The actor brings tingling suspense to "Pretty Women," gorgeously sung even as he prepares to give Turpin his last-ever shave. And his rendition of "Epiphany," a psychotic break set to music, is as hair-raising as any I've encountered, going back to Len Cariou, the original Todd. If Groban lacks Cariou's monomania and bloodlust, or the feral rage of George Hearn (another celebrated interpreter), this is a Todd that can stand with the best of them.

Less successful is Annaleigh Ashford as Mrs. Lovett, the amoral pie shop proprietor who becomes Sweeney's lover and partner in crime. Wielding her rolling pin, she kneads every bit of hilarity out of "The Worst Pies in London," picking creepy-crawlies out of the dough while lamenting the inedibility of her offerings. She is tasty sight, looking vacant with a carrot bulging out of her mouth; she can execute a pratfall with the best of them; and she slides down a staircase with elan. But she is so busy nailing her laughs that she neglects the character's other, more complex dimensions. Angela Lansbury's Lovett hid her wickedness under a cloak of maternal warmth, and was futilely, heartbreakingly in love with Todd. Patti LuPone's Lovett was riotously practical, a blast of cold common sense in the most outrageous situations, yet only too willing to follow Todd to the gates of hell. Ashford, a distinctive talent in other roles, pales in comparison, and her singing, while solid enough, isn't a patch on Groban's; her Act I solo, "Wait," in which he urges Sweeny to slow-roll his revenge, lacks its usual allure.

Still, Ashford and Groban partner with unfettered glee on "A Little Priest," the evil, bubbling waltz in which Todd and Lovett solve their personal supply-and-demand problem. (He has an inconvenient corpse on hand; she needs ingredients for her meat pies. As she says, "Bright ideas pop into my head!") They have a fine time cracking each other up, cooking up devilish puns about the victims to come. ("Try some financier/Peak of his career/That looks pretty rank/Well, he drank/He's a bank cashier!") Working every black-hearted joke for all it is worth, the actors at last make a suitably iniquitous team.

The rest of the cast is solid, if a little uneven. As Anthony, the sailor who befriends Todd, Jordan Fisher sends his numbers soaring to the rafters and beyond, but, as Johanna, who captures his heart, Maria Bilbao succumbs to the nervous mannerisms adopted by many of her predecessors in the role. (To be sure, her silvery voice burnishes "Green Finch and Linnet Bird," one of the score's most memorable ballads, as beautifully as anyone could wish.) As Toby, the damaged boy taken in by Mrs. Lovett, Gaten Matarazzo brings a fresh urgency to "Not While I'm Around," walking into a trap while declaring love for his benefactress. I regret the deletion of "Johanna (Mea Culpa)," which reveals the depths of Judge Turpin's depravity -- cut from the original production, it is available as an option - but Jamie Jackson makes him suitably villainous anyway. John Rapson has some remarkable high notes as his henchman, the oily, effete Beadle Bamford, as does Nicholas Christopher as the blackmailing "Italian" barber who becomes Todd's first victim. Creepily insinuating herself into nearly every scene is the excellent Ruthie Ann Miles as the deranged beggar who holds the key to the plot.

With so many fine voices and Jonathan Tunick's incomparable orchestrations under the baton of musical director Alex Lacamoire, the score's ravishing qualities find full expression. This is especially true of such complex, multicharacter sequences as the quartet built around "Kiss Me" (featuring Anthony and Johanna) and "Ladies in Their Sensitivities" (with Turpin and the beadle), and the Act II sequence, featuring Todd, Anthony, Johanna, and the Beggar Woman, that sets the denouement in motion. The same is true of the many choral interludes, which alternate delicately melodious passages with the thundering chords of the "Dies Irae." These scenes also highlight the brilliant construction of Hugh Wheeler's book, which sends the characters hurtling toward a climax packed with stunning reversals, ending in a stage littered with bodies.

Kail's staging pairs soaring lyricism with effective shock moments, including Todd's startling first entrance and his and Mrs. Lovett's electrifying final disappearance; the climactic murders may have you recoiling in horror. Choreographer Steven Hoggett gives the chorus a tense, robotic vocabulary of movements, stages a sinister masked ball, and unleashes chaos in "City on Fire," delivered by a gaggle of the insane running amok. Mimi Lien's multilevel scenic design invokes the bleak deprivations of the Industrial Revolution, with an oppressive bridge lurking overhead and a hulking crane that, revolving, becomes part of the bakehouse where unspeakable acts are committed. Upstage is a J. M. W. Turner-style sketch that turns an infernal red, courtesy of lighting designer Natasha Katz, whenever blood is shed. Katz also sends splintered beams of cold white light shooting across the stage and, using footlights, casts nightmarish shadows that dwarf the actors. Emilio Sosa's costumes are perhaps a tad posh (and neat) for a mise en scène of Victorian squalor, but they are accurate to the period and impressive on their own terms. It would be a crime if a Sondheim musical wasn't thoroughly intelligible, so it's good to have Nevin Steinberg on hand, guaranteeing a sound design that provides clarity while allowing the orchestra to shine.

It's fascinating that both Sweeney Todd and the equally challenging Parade have shown such strength at the box office this spring. The reason is obvious -- both Groban, and Ben Platt, of Parade, sell tickets -- but, based on the audience response at the performances I attended, it seems clear that plenty of theatregoers remain hungry for compelling, adult stories; sophisticated lyric; and music not thieved from the Billboard Top 100. I hope producers are taking note. Meanwhile, this production is an opportunity that shouldn't be missed. --David Barbour

(21 April 2023)

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