“There’s a hole in the world / Like a great black pit / And the vermin of the world / Inhabit it,” a stone-faced Sweeney Todd snarls, after the enthusiastic sailor Anthony burbles at him about coming home to London. Their conversation is the first in the much anticipated Broadway revival of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” at the Lunt-Fontanne—and, particularly with Times Square just outside, the most relatable. The great black pit’s nearby, but we’re all pie-eyed Anthonys. There’s no scowl dour enough, no blood spurt red enough, to quell a theatre full of people eager for this new production of Stephen Sondheim’s beloved horror operetta, starring the pop-classical superstar Josh Groban as Sweeney and the Tony Award winner Annaleigh Ashford as his landlady, Mrs. Lovett. A twenty-six-person orchestra plays like mad under the stage, but the audience, on the verge of mob hysteria, provides its own dynamics, screaming before Sweeney’s razor ever catches the light.
We take our seats looking at the underside of a great bridge, a huge brick arch occupying most of the stage. The lighting designer, Natasha Katz, makes the night in this shadowy realm seem deeper with fog and moonlight—we’re down where the mud larks go, those who scavenge the Thames’s banks, looking for flotsam to sell. The director, Thomas Kail, and his choreographer, Steven Hoggett, start the show by making the ensemble seem to materialize from the blackness. “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,” the company sings, hauling Sweeney himself up out of the ground and hurling him toward us. His white face and ratty beard make him look like something that the mud larks have fished out of the river.
Sweeney is a nightmare barber who cuts his clients’ throats, sometimes for good reason, sometimes out of sheer homicidal exuberance. Mrs. Lovett adores him, not least because he’s useful for her pie-making business: corpses slide off his barber’s chair, down a chute, and into her bakehouse. (Meat’s expensive, she explains, and “them pussy cats is quick.”) The grim, exhilarating, Tony Award-winning 1979 musical—with music and lyrics by Sondheim and a book by Hugh Wheeler—was inspired by a 1970 play by Christopher Bond, who fleshed out an iconic figure from the Victorian penny-dreadful tradition. Every production contains the source material’s doughlike flexibility. You can pat it (John Doyle’s small-cast, chamber-size iteration, from 2005); you can poke it (the Tooting Arts Club’s 2017 production, which crammed the audience into a tiny, purpose-built pie shop); you can even mark it with your script in hand (the New York Philharmonic’s 2014 concert version). It always works. That’s the thing about English music-hall entertainment, right, luv? It’ll make do wi’ whatever you’ve got.
The plot is a deliberately gamy melodrama. Sweeney Todd, having escaped from Australia after fifteen years’ exile there on a trumped-up charge, wants vengeance: the diabolical Judge Turpin (Jamie Jackson) and his slimy Beadle (John Rapson, deliciously corrupt) deported him to get to his beautiful wife, Lucy, whose sexual and mental destruction forms the story’s tragic linchpin. Turpin has taken and raised Sweeney’s daughter, Johanna (Maria Bilbao), and, when our cheerful sailor Anthony (Jordan Fisher) happens to fall for the now grown girl, the plot gears mesh. If you put the music to one side (you can’t, but say you could), you might notice that director Kail’s staging is a bit ragged. There’s some difficulty in hearing spoken text over underscoring, and the physical storytelling stumbles; for instance, the choreography for Lucy’s assault elides the particulars so much as to be unreadable. Kail, best known for directing “Hamilton,” does put his own stamp on the material—an elaborate letter handoff is one apparent bit of self-quotation—but he makes only a small impression. Sondheim’s sooty, sour-hearted music and lyrics are the things that etch themselves into your mind. And listening to a Broadway orchestra play, at full strength, Jonathan Tunick’s original arrangements is like getting musically mugged: whammo—you wake up in an alley surrounded by piccolos.
“He served a dark and a vengeful god,” the chorus sings of Sweeney. That’s not the rueful, slight, broken man we meet in this production. Groban’s exquisite baritone is so angelic, so carefully placed, that it draws back the curtains of the show’s own gloom. It also wouldn’t menace a mouse, so he cedes the show’s primary energy to Ashford’s hilarious version of Lovett, who’s ready to wreck their plans, the stage, the show as long as it serves her chaotic shtick. Playing the nutty Ernie to Groban’s neurotic Bert, she employs a combination of clown physicality (she bows to the judge halfway down the stairs, a posture that she maintains, bumpily, all the way to the bottom of the flight) and peripatetic zaniness; every time she pecks at the reluctant Groban, fluttering all over him, it looks as though someone threw a chicken in his face.
But, then, he’s at a theatrical disadvantage. In Mimi Lien’s set, Groban’s character is often “upstairs,” which places him on a platform, behind a sight-line-spoiling railing, while Ashford gets to prowl the stage lip. Up those dozen stairs, he seems miles away. Get him down by the footlights, though, with the company’s incredible sopranos shrieking their siren-high “Sweeney! Sweeney!,” and he’s in business. (This is a young and handsome cast, but only in one moment—when Groban grips Ashford by the jaw, dancing her backward—do you get a sense of how erotic and scary the pair might have been.) With the light-spirited Ashford pickpocketing scenes instead of stealing them, the main emotional weight is carried by the deranged Beggar Woman (Ruthie Ann Miles), a character who is cast aside with increasing brutality, and Mrs. Lovett’s little helper lad, Tobias (Gaten Matarazzo), who turns out to be the soul of the show. Miles and Matarazzo are both tremendous, but, again, Kail’s staging takes their big moments and muddies them—he keeps losing characters at various peripheries.
“Sweeney Todd” captures our secret fear of our neighbors: it makes the barber’s crimes lurid, so we don’t feel the city’s nearer, subtler cuts. But is it actually scary? Sonically thrilling, yes, but a frolicking Lovett and her sad Sweeney couldn’t, in the end, chill my blood. For me, a production downtown at the Connelly Theatre, the Bedlam Theatre Company’s presentation of Talene Monahon’s startling “The Good John Proctor,” managed to deliver a higher fright-per-minute ratio. The show is modest by comparison, with just four actors (Sharlene Cruz, Brittany K. Allen, Tavi Gevinson, and Susannah Perkins), all excellent, to “Sweeney” ’s twenty-five. Each embodies a figure familiar from Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”—the innocent girl playing with poppets, the woman outsider with mysterious wisdom, the religious hysteric, and the adolescent whose sexual relationship with John Proctor kicks off the whole Salem-witch-trial mess. The girls speak in modern argot, because, even though their work includes churning butter, there’s nothing old-fashioned about how the unseen, adult Proctor smashes through an eleven-year-old child’s trust.
Sarah Ruhl’s “Becky Nurse of Salem” also issued a tart feminist corrective to “The Crucible,” but Monahon’s play places its hand on a deeper set of powers, conjuring awful tensions out of the juxtaposition of girlhood and the abyss. Under Caitlin Sullivan’s confident direction, “The Good John Proctor” has the sense of palpable dread that “Sweeney Todd”—so grand and frequently sensorially ravishing—lacks. The girls talk a lot about going into “The Woods,” a source of forbidden knowledge, and there are certainly creepy scenes, lit by a single lantern, of them crawling through underbrush. They think they’re inching toward something dangerous, but we know that the lasting harm has already been done. I shook off the grimness of “Sweeney” only a few minutes after leaving the theatre; I will buy the cast recording (there will surely be one), but I’ll listen to it merrily. Monahon’s poison, though, still hasn’t worked its way out of my system. When she says the world is a great black pit, I believe her. ♦
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