Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
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When you’ve attended the tale of “Sweeney Todd,” nearly a dozen times, it’s perhaps forgivable that indelible images of previous productions swim through your head during the early moments of Thomas Kail’s ultimately must-see version of the classic Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical, now at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
Where is Len Cariou’s supremely menacing demon barber of Fleet Street? Why isn’t Patti LuPone playing the tuba? Shouldn’t we be in a letter-perfect re-creation of a London pie shop, as we were most recently on Barrow Street, rather than on Mimi Lien’s mostly non-descript set (gorgeously lit by Natasha Katz)?
Fortunately, one’s memories fade eventually, and the sheer spell of the chilling story and the admirable skill of the uniformly excellent cast -- led by a persuasive Josh Groban and a positively brilliant Annaleigh Ashford -- sweep you into the action.
From the show’s first moments, one knows that the audience is probably filled with plenty of first timers to the show – attracted by the star-power of the ultra-popular Groban (who proves himself up to this difficult task), Disney and “Hamilton” alum Jordan Fisher (a bit lightweight but pleasing enough as the naïve sailor Antony), and “Stranger Things’” Gaten Matarazzo (simply sensational as the simple young lad Tobias).
Luckily, they are likely to be entranced from the score’s beginning, ominous notes, which are beautifully played by a 26-piece orchestra led by the great Alex Lacamoire, using Jonathan Tunick’s stunning orchestrations. Further, Sondheim’s incredible tunes as “Green Finch and Linnet Bird,” “Not While I’m Around,” and “Kiss Me” remain ones for the ages, no matter who’s singing them! (Steven Hoggett’s movements, sadly, don’t add much to proceedings.)
For those who need a short synopsis of the plot: the wronged barber Benjamin Barker (Groban) has somehow escaped his lifetime banishment to Australia and returned to London to find his wife Lucy and daughter Johanna. Unbeknownst to him, Lucy is now the town’s crazed beggar woman (a riveting Ruthie Ann Miles) --- and the now teenaged Johanna (a truly lovely Marie Bilboa) has become the unhappy ward of the sleazy Judge Turpin (a superb Jamie Jackson), who sent Barker away 15 years ago on a trumped-up charge.
Barker – now calling himself Sweeney Todd – learns a little of this story when he wanders (probably not accidentally) into the pie shop run by his former neighbor, Nellie Lovett, who is all too eager to help the man she’s dreamt about for years. Little does she know that they can help each other, since Nellie can’t find meat for her pies (causing a real customer shortage) and Sweeney can eventually provide the ideal if unconventional solution.
From her stupendous first number, “The Worst Pies in London”, Ashford’s one-of-a-kind comic gifts are on full display, finding surprising choices even in well-known scenarios. Yes, Ashford can be a rather broad broad at times, but her occasional over-the-top bits work just fine for the wacky Nellie. And, as we eventually discover, Ashford’s dramatic gifts are just as strong; her pairing with Sweeney is (to her) far more than a “marriage of convenience” – she truly covets a lifetime “by the sea” -- and she develops true maternal feelings for the devoted Tobias. A Tony Award in June is far from out of the question.
For many, Groban has been the production’s biggest question mark. He’s admittedly not as scary as one might expect, although Sweeney’s taste for revenge and instinct for self-preservation immediately show themselves when he’s confronted by a former employee who now masquerades as traveling Italian barber Pirelli (a sublime Nicholas Christopher). And his descent into completely amorality is made crystal-clear during the ultra-clever duet “A Little Priest” (a tour-de-force for Ashford) that ends the first act.
Even more importantly, Groban’s Sweeney is incredibly convincing in his desire to reunite with Johanna and mourn Lucy’s passing. He makes us feel that Sweeney has been robbed not just of time itself, but time with his family! No wonder he wants to quickly take the lives of both Turpin and his lackey, Beadle Bamford (a delicious John Rapson).
As expected, Groban sings with the kind of beauty, purity and clarity mere mortals can only dream about. You will never hear a prettier version of the second act’s “Johanna” or a more glorious “Pretty Women.” Yes, I’ve heard more chilling version of “My Friends” (sung to, yes, his razor), but in every way, not a false note emerges from Groban’s mouth.
If this cast is willing to extend its contract, this could be the rare Sondheim show to have a years-long Broadway run. The sky’s – or should I say the pies – the limit.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Josh Groban, Annaleigh Ashford , Jordan Fisher, Gaten Matarazzo, Ruthie Ann Miles, Maria Bilbao, Jamie Jackson, John Rapson, Nicholas Christopher, Jeanna de Waal, Galyana Castillo, Jonathan Christopher, Dwayne Cooper, Kyrie Courter, Taeler Cyrus, Timothy Hughes, Paul-Jordan Jansen, Alicia Kaori, Michael Kuhn, Raymond J. Lee, Megan Ort, Patricia Phillips, Mia Pinero, Samantha Pollino, Lexi Rabadi, Nathan Salstone, Kristie Dale Sanders, Stephen Tewksbury, Daniel Torres,Felix Torrez-Ponce, DeLaney Westfall and Hennessy Winkler
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