I should have such a problem all the time: how to review a show that is just about perfect.
This revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “musical thriller,” as he so subtitled Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, has been returned to its original glory by director Thomas Kail with a big cast and big orchestra and sensational sets (Mimi Lien) and terrific lighting (Natasha Katz). The show, now back on Broadway where it belongs—this is the kind of power that makes Broadway legendary—stars Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford; it opened to critical kudos and audience ecstasy. I’ll add my voice to the chorus.
The show feels like the kind of literary thriller of great novels, as each scene—an individual gem in itself—builds to the terrifying conclusion. This is revenge tragedy earning its classical label from the bloody precedents of Renaissance drama in a plot borrowed and deepened from its 19th century “Penny Dreadful” source with a book by Hugh Wheeler.
The story goes like this: Sweeney Todd (Groban brings intense gravitas to the role as he reveals heartbreak and bitterness: he is “laughing wild amid severest woe” as Beckett knew). Fifteen years ago he was a young and “naive” barber. He had a “beautiful” wife (Ruthie Ann Miles); a powerful judge (Jamie Jackson) wants her and sends Sweeney away to Australia as a criminal. When he returns as the show opens there is “No Place Like London,”no place as vile. He discovers his wife is—he thinks—dead and his grown daughter is held captive by the same judge.
Ashford’s comedic genius manages to make Mrs. Lovett both funny and ruthless while making “the worst pies in London.” She offers him first a room upstairs from her dusty shop and then a horrific partnership which allows him to murder his customers and thus provide ingredients for her pies.
We watch as Sweeney grows more and more cynical and cruel as Sondheim comments on not merely these characters but most of the human race, amply represented by the brilliant cast who are choreographed with menacing moves by Steven Hoggett. What an excellent joke on us as the citizens of fashionable London become foodies and want more and more pies.
The kind characters—Tobias (Gaten Matarazzo) and Anthony (Nathan Salstone, in a role usually played by Jordan Fisher)—are the rare people capable of genuine love, while every other relationship has self-interest at its heart. Generous Sondheim gives every character a song—an aria, really— “Johanna” and “Not While I’m Around” are the most famous. There are all the delights of signature Sondheim rhymes (trickster/elixir) and signature Sondheim musical counterpoints and oblique rhythms.
OK: problem solved. Write a rave. Done.
[Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, New York, NY] Previews began February 26, 2023, opened March 26, 2023; sweeneytoddbroadway.com