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Review | Groban and Ashford light the flames of a funny, sexier ‘Sweeney Todd’


NEW YORK — The shimmering chords strike, the blood turns cold, and we’re back in the pit of dizzying depravity with one of the favorite waltzes of American music lovers on the dark side: “Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” This time it’s sung by one of America’s favorite songs, Josh Groban, along with an exuberantly silly Annaleigh Ashford – a team that firmly anchors this Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler masterpiece in vocal muscularity and sickening comedic madness.

“Hamilton” director Thomas Kail crafts a delightful revival of the 1979 musical, which officially premiered on Broadway Sunday night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, following the signature outline of its stars’ personalities. Which in this production translates as taking a cue from a line uttered late in the show by the ensemble of jittery Londoners: “Isn’t that Sweeney right there next to you?” they sing, staring out of the fog at a set by Mimi Lien that looks like it was forged in a ghostly ironworks.

It feels with Groban’s more arguably emotional Sweeney – whose skin isn’t quite as pale and his eye isn’t so strange – that the character could indeed be sitting next to you and flipping through his Playbill. The choices the production makes will divide “Sweeney Todd” purists who have become accustomed to hollowed-out killing machines in the title role. But Groban provides ample evidence here that he can carry a Sondheim musical on his own terms, and certainly one in which he’s surrounded by as much top-notch talent as Kail musters on West 46th Street.

That primarily includes Mrs. Lovett of Ashford, Sweeney’s partner in the cannibalistic confectionery that is the musical’s sardonic centerpiece. Ashford always cheerfully makes his way to the center of attention. Her seemingly contemporary outlook turns the character into a different kind of carnivore, one with a sexualized appetite for living flesh. In other words, she’s the handiest Ms. Lovett you’ll ever meet, stroking and stroking and otherwise making her physical attraction to Sweeney abundantly clear. (It has never been made so clear before that this unfinished relationship is purely one-sided.)

Groban’s celebrated baritone sounds brilliant under some technically challenging conditions (and we’ll get to that): His renditions of “No Place Like London,” “Pretty Women,” with Jamie Jackson’s Judge Turpin, and especially “Epiphany” are versions you I want to plunge into your auditory memory bank. Other rewardingly memorable voices include Maria Bilbao as Sweeney’s daughter, Johanna, Ruthie Ann Miles as the pitiful Beggar Woman and John Rapson as the scabrous Beadle Bamford. And as the drifter Tobias, Gaten Matarazzo (best known as Dustin on Netflix’s “Stranger Things”) brings clear authority in a gut-wrenching “Not While I’m Around.”

The barn-like setting of the Lunt-Fontanne proves to be one of Broadway’s less suitable spaces to enjoy Sondheim’s intricate lyrics and Jonathan Tunick’s timeless orchestrations. From my seat in the orchestra, the acoustics in many scenes—which Kail often places onstage or on a catwalk high above—were frustratingly muddy. Call me a proponent, but I have to understand every brilliant rhyme, especially in a priceless duet like “A Little Priest,” where Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney craft their menu of human happy meals, job title by job title.

Some of Sondheim’s best gags are swallowed up by the imbalance between singers and orchestra, a situation exacerbated by a perhaps unexpected and happier problem: the audience’s frequent impetuous reactions. Ashford and Groban have a bit of a laugh in “A Little Priest,” which really becomes a problem when they share a bit of Sondheimian humor that we can’t hear.

Presumably this can be solved and over time it will result in a production of which the technical elements flow into each other more smoothly. This “Sweeney Todd” can already put Steven Hoggett’s timepiece in its win column for seamlessness. The choreographer creates a vocabulary for the chorus—sometimes enhanced in silhouettes by lighting designer Natasha Katz—that adds to the sense of a world reeling from cruelty and misery. After all, redemption in “Sweeney” exists in a strictly limited supply.

Jordan Fisher plays Anthony, the sailor who rescues Johanna from Judge Turpin’s incestuous clutches, and he and Bilbao infuse their romantic subplot with joyful zest. (Kail opted to cut Turpin’s problematic solo, in which he’s lasciviously obsessed with his department.) The casting generally leans toward youthful — though Groban is actually three years older than Len Cariou was when he debuted as Sweeney in the Broadway original opposite Angela Lansbury.

That original production 44 years ago shattered me in a way that rewired my understanding of the feelings a musical could evoke. I can still hear the shrill whistling that director Harold Prince added to the soundscape – an embellishment as heartbreaking as the shrieking violins in “Psycho.” Going his own way in 2023, Kail chooses not to attempt the abject horror the musical was capable of when it was freshly minted.

This “Sweeney Todd” is funnier, more quirky human, so maybe a beat or two less explosive than what I remember. But it remains an evening of countless irresistible moments, with a score that sings us into eternal blissful submission.

Sweeney Todd: Fleet Street’s diabolical barber, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Thomas Kail. Choreography, Steven Hoggett; series, Mimi Lien; costumes, Emilio Sosa; musical accompaniment, Alex Lacamoire; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Nevin Steinberg. Starring Nicholas Christopher, Stephen Tewksbury. About 2 hours and 50 minutes. At Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St., New York. sweeneytoddbroadway.com.

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