Playing an open-ended engagement at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, the new Broadway revival of the bloody 1979 musical thriller Sweeney Todd, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Hugh Wheeler, based on Christopher Bond’s stage adaptation of 1973, is the latest reincarnation in the long history of the tale of “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” – a murderous villain who first appeared in 1846-47, in the English penny dreadful series The String of Pearls – which has been retold many times since on the page, stage, screen, and radio. Directed by Thomas Kail, the current production features the original 26-piece orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, under the music supervision of Alex Lacamoire, the vocal prowess of Josh Groban in the titular role, and the comedic chops of Annaleigh Ashford as Mrs. Lovett, his pie-making partner in crime.
Set in Victorian London, the show weaves a darkly comic tale of murderous vengeance, when Benjamin Barker, a married barber wrongfully convicted and exiled to an Australian penal colony by a corrupt judge (who then raped his wife, causing her to take poison, and adopted their daughter Johanna), escapes fifteen years later and returns, under the assumed name of Sweeney Todd, to his former address above Mrs. Lovett’s failing pie shop, with the intention of reuniting with his family and wreaking revenge for the injustices they suffered. When his plan to kill the judge (now intending to marry his beautiful young ward) fails, he takes his anger and retribution out on all of humanity, with the willing assistance of his enamored landlady, by slitting the throats of his barbershop customers with a straight razor, then sending their bodies down a chute to the basement, to be baked into meat pies that prove popular with the locals and save her business. Until . . .
Under Kail’s masterfully balanced direction, the cast whips up a savory recipe of horror, heartbreak, and humor, with the perfect blend of gruesome Grand-Guignol melodrama, psychological insights into the emotional motivations of the characters, and the much-needed relief of slapstick comedy, all mixed to perfection by a star-studded cast led by the outstanding Groban and Ashford, who bring new life to the time-honored tale.
His rich and resonant performances of “The Barber and His Wife.” “Johanna,” and the defining “Epiphany” are a revelation of the sensitivity, love, and humanity, pain and torment that drive Todd to kill, taking us into his mind, engendering the sympathy of the audience (who actually cheered him for the grisly murders of his arch enemies at the performance I attended), and providing highlights of his compelling portrayal, as do his considered demeanor, shift from impassioned action to the nonchalance of his everyday routine of slashing, and perturbance at being unable to execute one customer who brought a companion (and potential witness) to the barbershop.
Ashford makes for the consummate counterpart and accomplice, delivering the laughs with her legible facial expressions and skilled physical comedy (the scenes of her aggressively flirting with Todd, descending the stairs while seated, and spinning around on the floor are absolutely hilarious), expressive shifts in voice on “The Worst Pies in London,” and sidesplitting duet with Groban on “A Little Priest.” She also captures the underlying tenderness of Mrs. Lovett in her beautifully moving rendition of “Not While I’m Around,” sung to and with Tobias, the homeless boy she has taken in as an apprentice and to whom she has become like a mother figure. Until . . .
Along with the terrific Gaten Matarazzo, who embodies the development and decline of the unfortunate Tobias, the fine supporting cast features Jordan Fisher as Anthony, a good and honorable young sailor who rescues Todd and returns him to London, falls in love with Johanna, and does his best to save her; Jamie Jackson as Judge Turpin and John Rapson as Beadle Bamford, Todd’s hateful antagonists who take delight in wielding their inhumane power and, in the case of Beadle, in singing silly “Parlor Songs;” Maria Bilbao as Johanna, who reciprocates Anthony’s love and longs to escape her captivity with the Judge, as heard in her romantic duet with Fisher on “Kiss Me” and her exquisite and distressed soprano solo on “Green Finch and Linnet Bird;” Ruthie Ann Miles as the mentally disturbed and relentlessly present Beggar Woman, whose true identity is revealed in the tragic ending; and Nicholas Christopher as the risible charlatan Pirelli, who challenges Todd to a shaving contest that ignites his business and enables his barbarous barbering.
They also form part of a full ensemble that portrays the Londoners, customers, victims, and inmates of Bedlam asylum, and appears en masse as a Greek Chorus, commenting on the horrific aspects of the tale with Sondheim’s signature complex harmonies and musical dissonance in “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” while executing the zombie-like choreography of Stephen Hoggett in bloody Victorian costumes (by Emilio Sosa) and wigs, hair, and make-up (by J. Jared Janas).
The action, sometimes simultaneous, is staged on a rotating bi-level set (by Mimi Lien), with a 19th-century-style London bridge, bakery shop counter, Johanna’s isolated room, Mrs. Lovett’s parlor, metal beams, asylum cells, and stairs leading up to a reclining barber’s chair and a chute that sends the dead bodies down to a fiery oven, enhanced by creepy haze (special effects by Jeremy Cerick), spotlights in the darkness, and a demonic red glow (lighting design by Natasha Katz).
Whether you’ve seen past productions of Sweeney Todd or the iconic musical is new to you, this phenomenal Broadway revival at the Lunt-Fontanne is not to be missed; it’s a killer.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 45 minutes, including an intermission.