Theatergoers wearing “I ❤️ My Josh” t-shirts filled a row of the Lunt-Fontanne the night I attended the fourth Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s darkly comic, horror operetta* about a berserk barber bent on bloody revenge. Josh Groban is not just a main draw in this revival; it was his idea. He even enlisted Thomas Kail, famed helmsman of “Hamilton,” to direct. This is not the only reason why we can both praise Groban for much of what’s wonderful about this production and blame him for much of what falls short.
In an adaptation of a grisly nineteenth century British melodrama, Groban portrays Benjamin Barker, who has escaped the Australian prison where he was imprisoned for fifteen years on trumped-up charges by evil Judge Turpin (Jamie Jackson), who coveted Barker’s beautiful wife. Barker returns to London, having rechristened himself Sweeney Todd, hoping to reunite with his wife and their daughter, and to effect his revenge on the judge and his oleaginous Beadle (John Rapson) But when Sweeney returns to what once was his old barbershop, Mrs. Lovett (Annaleigh Ashford), owner of the pie shop on the floor below, informs him that his wife poisoned herself, and Judge Turpin has made their daughter Johanna (Maria Bilbao) his ward, with plans to make her his wife. Mrs. Lovett owns a pie shop that is doing very poorly. When Sweeney launches his murderous rampage, luring customers with a promise of a close shave and instead cutting their throats, it is Mrs. Lovett who comes up with the idea of using the bodies for her meat pies —
Think of it as thrift
As a gift …
If you get my drift
– turning all of fashionable London into satisfied customers and unconscious cannibals.
Debuting in 1979, with Len Cariou as the serial killer and Angela Lansbury as his pie-making accomplice, Sondheim and Wheeler’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” has not yet stood the test of time to be so widely heralded as a masterpiece. But it seems to have passed another test for such a designation: The beauty, power and intelligence of Sondheim’s songs come through whatever the scale or interpretation. The “Sweeney Todd” I’ve enjoyed the most was produced six years ago by Tooting Arts Club at Barrow Street Theater, which was transformed into a replica of Harrington’s, one of London’s oldest pie shows – complete with the meat pies (baked by President Obama’s White House pastry chef Bill Yosses…using chicken.) It was the perfect setting for a scaled-down production, featuring just a three-piece band, and an eight-member cast, who frequently performed atop the tables where the audience members sat.
Groban and Kail have opted to go for a grand scale, a cast of 25, and a 26-piece orchestra playing Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations, conducted by (Kail’s Hamilton colleague) Alex Lacamoire
Groban’s pop baritone becomes in effect the 27th piece in that orchestra – a central one, a dominant one, turning Sondheim’s songs not just glorious but gorgeous, and serving Sondheim’s lyrics with great clarity and purity.
But the singer is simply not convincing as an innocent man deranged by injustice into becoming the menacing demon that the chorus sings about from the opening number — a Sweeney Todd “who served a dark and vengeful God,” who was smooth and subtle but “would blink and rats would scuttle.”
Groban doesn’t seem to have the acting chops to pull off the intensity possessed by every other Sweeney I’ve seen, including the one in the fun-filled British music hall version I saw (Jeremy Secomb.) Since Groban did get nominated for a Tony for his Broadway debut in “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” it might be fairer to say that he is miscast, his face unable to erase the nice guy written all over it.
The upshot of Groban’s lack of intensity is that a show that usually navigates carefully between humor and horror loses its balance.
As Mrs. Lovett, Annaleigh Ashford pushes in the opposite direction. A physical comedienne non-pareil, who was hilarious simply by practicing her ballet steps in her Tony-winning performance in “You Can’t Take It With You,” here reaches towards slapstick. She sits on the staircase as a sign of respect (submission) in front of Judge Turpin, but then bumps her way down it on her behind. She uses her duets with Groban to express Mrs. Lovett’s longing for Sweeney as exaggerated lust, Carol Burnett-style.
Her performance is entertaining, and brings the comedy to the fore. But the sense of dread is left almost entirely to Natasha Katz’s superb lighting. Katz is likely to win her eighth Tony Award for the way she makes the light struggle through the darkness, or cast ominous shadows, or suddenly flash from Sweeney’s razor like a lightning strike of evil. It enhances the stark stare of the chorus when they sing full force The lighting effects work in tandem with Mimi Lien’s dark, two-tiered set (complete with a huge crane and an elaborate barber chair-to-chute-to-oven contraption for Sweeney’s victims), which tries to make visual Sweeney’s bitter description of 19th century London: “a hole in the world / Like a great black pit / And the vermin of the world / Inhabit it.”
Ironically, the clarity of vision in the visual stagecraft is not always matched by audio clarity. Many have complained that the lyrics are often unclear in this production of “Sweeney Todd,” either because of the audio system, or the singing style of many of the individual performers, or both (Groban’s clarity being the exception.) This is not a minor issue for those affected. I did not have a problem making out the lyrics – because I attended a performance that offered open captions. Open captioning is rarely offered, at “Sweeney Todd” or anywhere else on Broadway. I find it shocking that it is not more regularly on offer. It is inexcusable how much Broadway lags behind the Metropolitan Opera, which is hardly a more populist institution, except when it comes to its commitment to being accessible.
Many in the cast held their own. I was especially taken with Gaten Matarazzo, best-known for Stranger Things, who portrays Tobias Ragg, who becomes Mrs. Lovett’s helper and excels in a couple of the comic ditties and in the lovely if weird “Not While I’m Around.” Ruthie Ann Miles is at first off-putting as the beggar woman, in exactly the way a beggar woman might be, exacerbated by grotesquely exaggerated ragged costume, makeup and wig, but by the time of the ghastly reveal as to her identity, she has become an individual to us, through the power of Miles’ singing.
But “Sweeney Todd” belongs, as it must, to Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, and, if I didn’t greet every single moment that Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford are on stage with huzzahs, they ultimately were prime movers in making this “Sweeney Todd” a largely satisfying experience for me. This is especially true in the final moments, which drive home the moral of the show, something I don’t remember grasping with such force in previous productions — that revenge never satisfies.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Lunt-Fontanne TheaterRunning time: Three hours including a 15-minute intermission
Tickets: $173-$659. Ticket lottery $30
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler. From an adaptation by Christopher Bond.
Directed by Thomas Kail. Choreography by Steven Hoggett. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Music supervision and conducted by Alex Lacamoire.
Scenic design by Mimi Lien. Costume design by Emilio Sosa. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Nevin Steinberg. Wig, hair, and makeup design by J. Jared Janas. Special effects design by Jeremy Chernick Music coordinator David Lai.
Cast: Josh Groban, Annaleigh Ashford, Jordan Fisher, Gaten Matarazzo, Ruthie Ann Miles, Maria Bilbao, Jamie Jackson, John Rapson, Nicholas Christopher, Jeanna de Waal, Galyana Castillo, Jonathan Christopher, Dwayne Cooper, Kyrie Courter, Taeler Cyrus, Timothy Hughes, Paul-Jordan Jansen, Alicia Kaori, Michael Kuhn, Raymond J. Lee, Megan Ort, Patricia Phillips, Mia Pinero, Samantha Pollino, Lexi Rabadi, Nathan Salstone, Kristie Dale Sanders, Stephen Tewksbury, Daniel Torres, Felix Torrez-Ponce, DeLaney Westfall, and Hennessy Winkler.
Photographs by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman
*”Operetta” is the term Sondheim himself used to describe “Sweeny Todd” although he found it not exact.