Wednesday, February 28, 2024

REVIEW: Sweeney Todd (New Cast)

Review of the matinee performance on Sunday, February 25, 2024 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York City. Starring Aaron Tveit, Sutton Foster, Joe Locke, Maria Bilbao, Daniel Yearwood, Michael Kuhn, Jamie Jackson, John Rapson and Ruthie Ann Miles. Book by Hugh Wheeler. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. From an adaptation by Christopher Bond. Scenic design by Mimi Lien. Costume design by Emilio Sosa. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Nevin Steinberg. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Choreography by Steven Hoggett. Direction by Thomas Kail. 2 hours 45 minutes, including one intermission.

Let me get right to what you really want to know. Sweeney Todd is as amazing as ever - different from when it opened, but just as amazing. Over the years, I've seen more than a dozen different productions of Sondheim's masterwork, and I've seen more than a dozen different interpretations of its characters. Both Aaron Tveit and Sutton Foster more than deliver the goods in terms of acting, singing, and a fresh take on these iconic characters.

Let me also say that neither of their performances sound like those first night audio bootlegs. They sing this score wonderfully, with a beguiling mix of straight singing and character-driven choices. Ms. Foster, particularly, employs her voice to great effect in a wide range of ways, from kooky matron to motherly affection to downright sinister villain. Mr. Tveit, meanwhile, lets Sweeney build, from anger to vengeance to bloodthirsty maniac. What is particularly gratifying are the undercurrents of both of their performances that add a grounding to their interpretations. She, underneath, is a bubbling mess of desperation - desperate to find success, to woo her beloved, to simply survive. Meanwhile, a tragically profound grief informs everything he says and does. 

This production has always leaned heavily into the Grand Guignol tradition, with a heaping helping of melodrama and penny dreadful horror. Tveit's portrayal, a fascinating ebb and flow of cocksure preening and tortured brooding reaches its first climax with his explosive "Epiphany," and later in the climactic finale where the grim reality he faces brings a moment of clarity that is simply chilling. The physicality of Foster's Mrs. Lovett, often very sexually charged, calls to mind the great physical comediennes of a long lost Broadway. She piles it on pretty thick, which might not sit too well with some viewers, but every choice she makes is a study in desperation and an almost gruesome lack of self-awareness. And yet, you can read the calculative smarts this woman has - she may seem flighty and silly, but she is a groomer of the highest (lowest?) order. The most telling moment of her entire performance comes during "Not While I'm Around," when she tries to soothe her young charge with bribes of candy and a hand-knit scarf all with her cheery silliness. The second she realizes she's been found out, her face changes instantly, a veil of darkness slides onto her face, her eyes become steely in their glare, her smile replaced by grim, set lips. 

Speaking of "Not While I'm Around," that number, in the hands of newcomer Joe Locke, was worth the entire price of admission. Yes, I find him to be quite good - excellent, in fact - in Heartstopper, but nothing prepared me for what he does here. Utterly charming and completely captivating, this young man is hard to keep your eyes off of. His chemistry with Ms. Foster is palpable. He has a pure, powerful voice, and a real gift for both comedy and heartrending emotion. Mr. Locke has the unique ability to seem fresh and seasoned simultaneously. One hopes that he will return to Broadway soon and frequently; his is a not-to-be-missed debut. 

Unfortunately, there is now a weak spot where there wasn't one before, and that is with Daniel Yearwood's unfortunate pop star take on Anthony. He reads his lines alright, I suppose, but nothing that comes out of his mouth matches the tone and style of the rest of the company. There is nothing beyond his one-dimensional "I'm the good guy" vibe, and while he sings alright, there is no real passion, wonder or even humor in his voice. Everyone on the stage is in an operatic melodrama, while he's on the 80s on 8 channel. As luck would have it, there was a fifth "newcomer" in the role of Pirelli, Michael Kuhn. He was pretty wonderful - one of the most well-articulated Pirellis I've yet seen, and his comic timing was perfection. Best of all, the plot twist of his character's relationship to Barker/Todd was crystal clear and delightfully nefarious, no small feat.

The rest of the company remains excellent, with solid performances from Maria Bilbao as Johanna and Ruthie Ann Miles as the Beggar Woman. But I have to say that both Jamie Jackson, as the thoroughly wicked Judge Turpin, and John Rapson, as the equally thoroughly wicked Beadle Bamford, really impressed me this time around, each nailing a balance between genuine evil and mustache-twirling melodrama villains, making their deaths... satisfying.

I am really glad I paid another visit to Fleet Street. Its thrills and chills are as powerful as ever - but the wonder of it is that they come in fun, unexpected ways this time around.

📸: M. Murphy/E. Zimmerman

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