The cannibalist startup in “Sweeney Todd” kills two birds: For Sweeney, the ruined barber who holds a grudge as steadily as he does a blade, it means turning enemies into actual mincemeat. For Mrs. Lovett, who laments that alley cats were too quick and meager to carve up anyway — well, it’s a living, innit love?
Slitting throats and baking bodies into pies is a wild and wicked business. But in the stately and star-filled revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s macabre 1979 musical that opened on Broadway Sunday night, the people-to-pastries pipeline quickly assumes a grim air of mundanity.
For its stars Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, this lushly orchestrated and opera-scale production, from “Hamilton” director Thomas Kail, proves a magnificent showcase for their respective, jaw-dropping talents. Groban’s weighted-blanket baritone makes the prospect of reclining in his company and never waking up again seem like a great way to go. And Ashford’s fleet, agile instinct for comedy, which earned her a Tony Award for “You Can’t Take It With You,” is like a dippy bird for dopamine. But only one of them is a genuine thrill.
Mrs. Lovett, the role originated on Broadway by Angela Lansbury, is a warm and kooky lantern in an otherwise cold and earnest penny dreadful packed with stock characters: There’s Anthony, the young romantic, who falls for Sweeney’s damsel daughter Johanna (beautifully sung by Jordan Fisher and Maria Bilbao, respectively). There’s the crooked Judge Turpin (Jamie Jackson), who ruined Sweeney’s former life, and his lackey Beadle Bamford (John Rapson). And as measures of how far there is to fall, there are the Beggar Woman (Ruthie Ann Miles, a Tony winner for “South Pacific,” in a part she makes you wish were bigger) and the orphan Tobias (Gaten Matarazzo of “Stranger Things,” stunt cast and vocally out to sea among the rest).
Kail’s production has an austere severity that’s suited to serial killings but also makes it feel coolly remote. The Lunt-Fontanne Theatre is cavernous; Mimi Lien’s soaring sewage tunnel set emphasizes its proportions, which make a stunning canvas for the shadowy grandeur of Natasha Katz’s lighting design. The Turneresque backdrop even suggests an element of the sublime, when lone figures dwarfed by their surroundings are led to contemplate the meaning of life. But this is also musical theater and the audience wants a taste of the action. (This is far from the intimate Off Broadway “Sweeney” that sat audiences inside the pie shop.)
“Sweeney Todd” is as dense as a flourless cake; there’s a lot worth savoring, and you feel the loss when occasional lyrics get swallowed by the space, particularly in the backstory-heavy early numbers (amplification adjustments might help). Kail’s staging is imposing yet nicely uncluttered with only a few major moving parts. But a suspended bridge that’s home to lovers’ duets and barbershop slayings holds them at an even further remove (though it makes easy work of body disposal).
Groban, previously on Broadway in “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” is a gentleman’s Sweeney. It’s possible to argue that his buttoned-up countenance and natural nobility are like dressing up a demon in a top hat and overcoat. But if there is bloodthirst underneath his desperation, it’s not an unhinged or unpredictable one. His voice can conjure a thousand associations, but here, menace isn’t one of them. When he swings his razor high, the hair on the back of your neck doesn’t budge.
Though the blood flows (modestly) and the stage flashes red now and again, it could all be more gruesome, more twisted and a bit less serious, even for a melodrama. (The choreography by Steven Hoggett, often limited to gestures or clumped scurrying, is likewise earnest.)
That makes Ashford, leaving her own indelible mark on the role, an especially exhilarating standout. Her wit carries an element of surprise that feels like its own kind of danger; it’s impossible to guess how she’ll deploy the next note, or even syllable, in her commitment to landing unexpected laughs. Her daffiness is delicate and grounded in character, even as it threatens to float off like a stray balloon. Following her turn opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in “Sunday in the Park With George,” Ashford is cementing herself as a premiere Sondheim interpreter; there will be those who brag about seeing Ashford’s “By the Sea” and LuPone’s “Ladies Who Lunch” within back-to-back seasons.
And there will be audiences who remember hearing the dynamite score of “Sweeney Todd” played by a 26-person orchestra, and sung by as many soaring voices, as a pulse-raising experience on its own, all handsome pageantry aside.
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