‘Sweeney Todd’ is back with a vengeance

Gaten Matarazzo, Annaleigh Ashford, Josh Groban, Nathan Salstone and the company of "Sweeney Todd."
Gaten Matarazzo, Annaleigh Ashford, Josh Groban, Nathan Salstone and the company of “Sweeney Todd.”
Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

It’s about bloody time! The now-classic Sondheim musical “Sweeney Todd” is getting a magnificent, full-scale Broadway revival, and it’s not to be missed. Since the original premiered in 1979, the show has had two Broadway revivals (1989 and 2005) and countless smaller productions around the world, in opera houses, and even stripped down in an actual pie shop in London (which transferred to New York in 2017). For all of these — and many have been terrific — in this new production, Sondheim’s gory, grand guignol penny dreadful set to music, with a book by Hugh Wheeler, direction by Thomas Kail, and choreography by Steven Hoggett, feels like it’s been restored to its full operatic scale with all the power and excitement that entails. Especially with more than 25 outstanding musicians in the pit, you can hear the score — and Jonathan Tunick’s exciting orchestrations — as it hasn’t been heard in a very long time.

There’s much more to be excited about as well. Thanks to Kail’s work, the focus of the piece and the two lead characters who hatch a plan to murder people and bake them into pies is more darkly personal. The psychopathy of Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd is more gleefully evil and horrifying than in previous productions. Sweeney, a barber who has returned to London, is bent on revenging himself on the judge and the beadle who transported him to Australia on a trumped-up charge so they could take advantage of his wife. Mrs. Lovett owns a failing pie shop. When Todd begins slaughtering the unsuspecting seeking a shave, it’s Mrs. Lovett who comes up with the idea of not letting the “meat” go to waste. (“Think of it as thrift./As a gift./If you get my drift.”) Mrs. Lovett is also making a romantic play for Todd while a grim view of 19th century London swirls around them and intertwining characters and plots drip with as much dramatic irony as Sweeney’s razor does with blood.

Kail’s vision is more critical of the world at large that Harold Prince’s original staging. Through brilliant use of the ensemble — abetted perfectly by Hoggett’s specific, almost zombie-like choreography — it’s not just the two main characters who are corrupt; they are simply ciphers in a dehumanizing culture. Mini Lien’s massive set has arching bricks that look like a sewer — an apt metaphor. Even with all the violence, Todd can only right so many wrongs. No wonder Mrs. Lovett wants them to escape to the seaside and forget all the bloody mayhem, profitable though it might be. 

Given all this, one might wonder why this production is so delightful. Perhaps the answer is with Mrs. Lovett, who on meeting Todd on his return from exile, says, “My you do like a good story, don’t you?” Indeed, this story has it all: horror, revenge, taking on power, creepy thrills, and a love-conquers-all ending. We just love being horrified…and thrilled.

While the story handles the horror just fine, the thrilling comes from the performances of the company. The ensemble is exceptional, making Sondheim’s complexity seem easy. Jamie Jackson as the evil judge is powerful and scary; John Rapson is Beadle Bamford, a slimy guy on the take, and one of the harder roles to sing. Rapson does it beautifully. Ruthie Ann Miles is the Beggar Woman, and she plays it with just the right balance of believable madness. Jordan Fisher and Maria Bilbao as the lovers Anthony and Johanna are both extraordinary. Bilbao delivers the coloratura pieces exquisitely. Johanna is Sweeney’s daughter who has been taken by the judge as a ward when Sweeney was transported, kept alone, and about to be forced to marry the judge. Bilbao expresses Johanna’s growing desperation, bordering on madness, beautifully.

Of course, any production of “Sweeney” is based on the two leads. Josh Groban and Analeigh Ashford are spectacular, revelatory, oddly sympathetic, and scary as hell. Sweeney’s barely suppressed fury pulses through the performance, and Groban’s voice easily accommodates the roles vocal range with flawless technique. As he did in “Natasha, Pierre…,” he proves himself to be an actor of depth and sophistication as well. Where Sweeney can be a caricature, Groban’s portrayal finds the tortured humanity in the part — and is all the more terrifying because of it.

Ashford, easily the foremost comic actress on Broadway today, gives us a hilarious, endearing and deeply cynical Mrs. Lovett. Her Mrs. Lovett is desperate, sexually frustrated, and it seems that she became the catalyst for all the bloodshed just to get into Todd’s bed. Less than twenty minutes into the show, Ashford stops it with “The Worst Pies in London,” arguably one of Sondheim’s most difficult songs to sing, and Ashford never lets up. Like Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone, and Christine Baranski before her, Ashford has created a distinct — and unforgettable — Mrs. Lovett.

Hurry and get your tickets to this bloody wonder. Chop chop.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street | Lunt-Fontanne Theatre | 205 West 46th Street | Weds. 2 p.m., Fri., Sat. 8 p.m.; Thurs. 7 p.m.; Sat. 2 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m. | Tickets from $79 at Ticketmaster2 hours, 45 mins, 1 intermission