Friday, April 28, 2023

REVIEW: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Review of the matinee performance on Sunday, April 23, 2023 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York City. Starring Josh Groban, Annaleigh Ashford, Maria Bilbao, Nicholas Christopher, Jordan Fisher, Jamie Jackson, Gaten Matarazzo, Ruthie Ann Miles and John Rapson. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler. Based on an adaptation by Christopher Bomd. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Scenic design by Mimi Lien. Costume design by Emilio Sosa. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Nevin Steinberg. Choreography by Steven Hoggett. Direction by Thomas Kail. 2 hours, 45 minutes, including one intermission.

Grade: A+

Even if you think you've seen everything Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street can be, you need to see this brilliant revival as soon as you can snag a ticket! After seeing the original tour staging, an opera staging, Sweeneys huge, Sweeneys teeney, a "modern" concept, and even a dinner theater staging (they served pot pies, of course), I thought I'd seen it all. Turns out that going back to a full, lavish staging with an incomparable company of artists is exactly what I needed to see. Utterly thrilling, this is, hands down, the very best production of Stephen Sondheim's masterwork I have ever seen.

Directed by Hamilton's Thomas Kail with a breakneck pace, building tension and peeling back layer after layer of drama, and, inevitably, sheer terror, he has brought things out in this tale that have been missed in previous versions. It is tight and focused, and yet, somehow, epic and grand. He and choreographer Steven Hoggett have created a Sweeney that moves with a frantic breathlessness, adding intensity in unexpected ways. Even still, both find ways to slow things down just enough - and provide a giggle or two - to give us a chance to catch up. (
I have to admit that when I first heard there was choreography at all, I was nervous. Happily, I didn't need to be.)

The creative team has brought its A-game. Mimi Lien's enormous black box settings seem to just appear out of the haze, with a foreboding sense of danger; her use of stage-wide bridges provides a sense of movement, oppression, and unique places to catch the action. Adding to this sense of apprehension while heightening the urgency is Natasha Katz's lighting, probably the best of her illustrious career, and definitely the best of the season. Darkness and light are opposing forces in the context of the script, and her design reflects that perfectly, and her frequent use of silhouetting is a dramatically chilling. Emilio Sosa's class-defining costumes immediately conjure a time and place where social status and power dynamics were the order of the day. Finally, whatever sound issues there were in early previews are gone; Nevin Steinberg's sound design is crystal clear and perfectly balanced - no small feat in the cavernous Lunt-Fontanne.

But...oh...the cast. God they're good! The large ensemble is filled with triple-threats, and they sing the score with such exacting perfection. Each member plays a variety of fully realized background characters that always add to but never distract from any scene they are in, and are always interesting to watch. Stand outs include the always amazing Timothy Hughes, Samantha Pollino, and extra charming Raymond J. Lee, who faces the razor twice! 

Nicholas Christopher has the distinction of being the first of over a dozen Pirelli's I've seen that delivers a completely audible contest sequence. He's a funny and sinister blast of energy, who ultimately gets what he deserves. Speaking of sinister, the villainous pair of Judge Turpin (Jamie Jackson) and Beadle Bamford (John Rapson) are evil incarnate - you feel a little dirty after every scene they are in. Both are superb character voice actors; even "Ladies in Their Sensitivities" and - gasp! - "Parlour Songs" are highlights here. Tony-winner Ruthie Ann Miles' Beggar Woman is probably the most complex I've seen, adding a poignant layer to the tragedy of her final scene. Utterly brilliant.


As the operetta-style lovers, Jordan Fisher (Anthony) and Maria Bilbao (Johanna) have fully embraced the hyperbole of their roles, creating not only moments of comic relief, but also a couple whose love at first sight is almost believable. Both sing beautifully - "Johanna" and "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" are lovely - and their voices blend beautifully in dramatic and hilarious effect in "Kiss Me" and "Ah, Miss!" For me, the biggest revelation of the performance was Gaten Matarazzo as the sweetly dim Tobias. He's endearing and pitiable, and like so many of the characters, desperate - for safety, love and a sense of belonging. Every time he sings and speaks, you sit forward just a bit so as not to miss a single nuance. So full-bodied is his performance that I found myself watching what he was doing even when he was not the center of attention, and he did not disappoint. Bravo, young man, bravo.

Finally, gloriously, the central pair of this melodrama are blissful perfection. Annaleigh Ashford delights with every twitch, tick and wiggle of her dual-bunned hairdo. Character is the order of the day with every word she utters and every note she sings. A younger skewing Mrs. Lovett, she uses her relative youth to her advantage - she's a sexier pie maker than we may be used to - and her hunger and desperation both ground her portrayal and heighten her extremes. Even with all of her physical comedy bits, she never goes overboard. Both "Wait" and "By the Sea" are delightful. There is a palpable chemistry between her and Josh Groban as the titular barber, a key to any Sweeney Todd. His is not a Todd we have seen before. No, he starts off with a brooding melancholy and evolves into a master of manipulation and vengeance. This slow build to a seething rage is quite effective, making his final, yes,  desperate killing spree a cathartic release. He's also quite funny and charming - necessary for a serial killer, right? That he can sing is never in doubt, though when he finally gets to unleash his instrument in "Epiphany," it is truly musical theater nirvana.

From the moment the music (under the skilled baton of Alex Lacamoire and the original, glorious Jonathan Tunick orchestrations) begins and smoke fills the stage, we are immediately transported to a different time. The company appeared from and within the shadows, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. This is not a Sweeney for the faint of heart. And it just builds from there. Part psychological thriller, part horror show, part musical comedy, this production embraces all of it. It is traditional yet acutely modern. The result is one of the top theater experiences I've ever had. 

📸: M. Murphy & E. Zimmerman

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