SWEENEY TODD. A REVIVAL THAT RANKS WITH THE ORIGINAL.
(This review was written for BLICKPUNKT MUSICAL, the German magazine on international musical theatre for which Mr. Dwyer is US reviewer.)
Since its Broadway premiere in 1979, Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, ”Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, has seen many variations: a scaled-down Broadway revival in 1989; an intimate production set in a London pie shop; a minimalist version where actors played the score with their own instruments; dozens of international companies and regional productions in the US; plus, concert and full opera versions. Several years ago, Glimmerglass, the premier summer opera venue in the United States, presented an uninspired opera version. Sondheim in a talkback after the performance was pressed by a determined interviewer to say that “Sweeney Todd” is really opera. Sondheim demurred. “I write musical theater” he stated unequivocally.
The new revival of the first fully staged and fully orchestrated production on Broadway since the original is indeed musical theater at its supreme best. Of all the productions I've seen (I can count nine), besides the original, my other favorite until now was the 2013 West End production with Michael Ball as Sweeney Todd and Imelda Staunton as Mrs. Lovett. This new “Sweeney”, with recording artist Josh Groban and the versatile Annaleigh Ashford, ranks nearly alongside the original with Len Cariou and the wonderful Angela Lansbury.
What is most distinctive about this production is the full expression of Sondheim’s lush, romantic score performed by a full 26-piece orchestra, with orchestrations again by Jonathan Tunick, who orchestrated the original. As with the first production, the set evokes a gritty, 19thC Dickensian London - here a series of brick arches suggesting an underground sewer, with a bridge that supports Sweeney’s barber shop from which is dropped his victims to a furnace below.
In case one is unfamiliar with the tale (book by Hugh Wheeler), a brooding, mysterious Sweeney (Groban) returns from the high seas with a young sailor Anthony (Jordan Fisher). They are sexually propositioned by a deranged Beggar Woman (Ruth Ann Miles). Sweeney happens on the meat pie shop of Mrs. Lovett (Ashford) and inquires of the empty quarters above it. Mrs. Lovett relates the story from years past about its former occupant Benjamin Barker, a young barber and his lovely wife, Lucy, and darling infant daughter, Johanna. The local Judge Turpin (Jamie Jackson) coveted Lucy, conspiring with his lackey, Beadle Bamford (John Rapson), to arrest Barker on trumped up charges. Sweeney gets penal transport as punishment. Mrs. Lovett tells Sweeney that Lucy committed suicide, and that the Judge has raised Johanna (Maria Bilboa) as his ward; she is kept imprisoned in his domicile. Mrs. Lovett recognizes Sweeney as Barker and presents him with his silver razors she had hidden away. Meanwhile, Anthony happens on Johanna, unknowing she is Sweeney’s daughter; they are smitten, he plans to rescue her from Turpin., Sweeney sets up his barber business above Mrs Lovett’s shop. When his rage overtakes him to kill a competing barber Pirelli (Nichols Christopher) who threatens to expose Sweeney’s real identity, he and Mrs Lovett dispose of the corpse in her meat pies. They conspire to use other innocent male customers for the same. Mrs Lovett takes on Pirelli’s assistant Tobias (Gaten Matarazzo) as her own. Sweeney’s obsession with revenge mounts. He hatches a plan with Anthony, who is trying to escape with Johanna, to entrap the Judge. Events unwind, truths are revealed, and tragedy befalls nearly everyone.
It’s all grand and grotesque, like a penny dreadful “opera” (about 80 percent is sung- through or underscored). Act 1 is splendid, full of Sondheim’s richest melodies; the concluding narrative constitutes most of Act 2. The huge cast - a total of 25 including ensemble - is stunning from featured players to leads. Rapson’s Pirelli captures perfectly the foppish pretense of an Italian barber, under which lies an Irish commoner; his performance of “The Contest” wherein Sweeny challenges him to a shaving duel is among the best I've seen. Jackson’s Judge Turpin constructs such a vivid picture a creepy, dirty-old-man he doesn’t need the depraved “Deliver Me” which has been cut from the original score; plus, he gets to perform, in duet with Sweeney, Sondheim’s sweetest of melodies, “Pretty Women”. Ruthie Ann Miles, who won a Tony for her featured role in “South Pacific,” brings more dimension of personality to the Beggar Woman than I recall from past productions: she uses her vocal range to create a fully traumatized character. Balboa presents a neurotic Johanna (one would be too if locked up through childhood); her “Green Finch and Linnet Bird'' is soprano perfection.
Most impressive are two young male performers. As Anthony, Jordan Fisher’s vocal command is note-perfect in the stunning solo “Johanna”. As for Gaten Matazarro, his performance as Tobias reminds how pivotal the role is as he takes the lead in not only “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” but also in the rousing ensemble “God That’s Good!”. In solo, he poignantly brings out the most plaintive aspects of the lovely “Not While I’m Around”.
As for the leads, the contrast is as startling as it is effective. Groban’s Sweeney is sung about as well as it as it has been before; there is not one syllable or note that is not lyrically and musically perfectly articulated. Some critics have questioned Groban’s acting ability. Pshaw. Even if his acting is “one-note”, his Sweeney is a construct of pure obsessive revenge: he’s resolute in purpose. Ashford’s take on Mrs. Lovett is unique - broadly comical, at times mugging (if not for the audience) for Todd, she’s a woman who uses humor both to defend herself from reality and to disguise her deceit. Her Mrs. Lovett might act like a silly floozy, but underneath a delusional intellect belies her inevitable doom. Her “By the Sea”, in which she fantasizes marital bliss with Sweeney, is a master-class in physical comedy.
Steve Hoggett’s choreography is quirky, full of peculiar gesticulations and angularities, as is much of his stage movement, like “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time”. However, the method to Hoggett’s madness manifests itself blissfully in the ensemble “God That’s Good!” which opens Act 2. It’s one of the best renditions of the number that I’ve seen.
The lighting design by Natasha Katz is appropriately dark; tragedy lurks in shadows everywhere. Period costuming by Emilio Sosa is grittily textured; Mrs. Lovett’s witty outfits complement her sassiness and humor. All of it is masterfully directed in seamless balance by Thomas Kail who most famously directed “Hamilton.” The highlight of the show is Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett’s “A Little Priest” where Sondheim’s lyrics are at his word-play wittiest; it brings the house down to close Act 1. Kail’s directorial acumen never lags; the very end is a moment of pure, theatrical inspiration that leaves the audience gasping. This “Sweeney Todd” takes one’s breath away.