Our eyes don’t normally well up with tears during “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” Stephen Sondheim’s horror-musical in which throats are gruesomely slashed and cannibalism is positively hilarious.
2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission. At the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St.
But minutes into the new Broadway revival starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford that opened Sunday night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, I was already verklempt.
Such is the overwhelming experience of hearing Sondheim’s glorious 1979 score in all its splendor played by a 26-person orchestra — not in some cavernous concert hall or opera house, but a real Broadway theater. It’s been a while.
Director John Doyle’s 2005 small-scale actor-musician production with Patti LuPone and the 2017 immersive off-Broadway staging at Barrow Street Theatre were differently wonderful, but director Thomas Kail’s revival packs an unmatched orchestral punch.
That famous first lyric, “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,” isn’t so much a suggestion this time, but a full-throated command.
So, off we go with Groban as Sweeney, a Victorian-era London barber who is wrongfully imprisoned by the lecherous judge who covets Todd’s wife, Lucy. Being locked up in faraway Australia turns him into a monster, hellbent on killing Judge Turpin (Jamie Jackson) and Turpin’s smarmy sidekick, the Beadle (John Rapson), back in England. He gets to London, and things turn bloody bloody.
Immediately we realize that Groban is not the menacing, feral Todd that Len Cariou and Michael Cerveris were, but a calmer chap with an ax to grind. This choice cuts both ways. Sweeney is more human, yes, but some scenes lack intensity. His song “Epiphany” — in which he declares, “They all deserve to die!” — isn’t as scary as it should be. Still, Groban is as well-sung a Sweeney as you’ll find.
Fresh off the boat, the barbaric barber heads to Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop on Fleet Street, where he’s served the worst pies in London and we’re served Ashford’s nonstop hilarity.
Ashford is a remarkably gifted comedienne. However, there’s more to her Lovett than schtick. With modern flair, she conjures memories of the very real women who’ve befriended serial killers like Ted Bundy or Charles Manson to find purpose or love.
She’s wildly funny: Her “By The Sea,” in which Mrs. Lovett imagines retiring to the coast with her murderer man-friend, is jammed with more jokes than we knew could fit. Yet she’s sad too — achingly desperate to have somebody by her side.
Sweeney and his eccentric former landlady team up — he wants revenge, she wants him — and embark on a bloody rampage through London.
But how to cover their tracks? Mrs. Lovett’s shop is struggling and she can’t afford high-quality meat (Yikes, “Sweeney Todd” could be set in 2023 NYC), so she hatches the maniacal plan to use the bodies of Sweeney’s victims to fill her pastries.
During one of the greatest Act One finales ever composed, “A Little Priest,” Ashford’s and Groban’s conspirators try to crack each other up like “SNL” actors.
On their murder spree, Sweeney and Lovett swim in a sea of lost souls.
Jordan Fisher plays Anthony, a bright-eyed sailor who falls in love with Sweeney’s daughter, Johanna (Maria Bilbao), who’s trapped by the evil judge. Fisher wins us over with guilelessness, but doesn’t quite nail the soaring “Johanna.” He’ll get there.
And how fortunate we are to watch Ruthie Ann Miles take the role of the crazed beggar woman and add incomparable depth and pain to her deranged shouts and cries.
Gaten Matarazzo from “Stranger Things” battles another monster as little Toby, initially assistant to the funny Italian barber Pirelli (Nicholas Christopher, flawless), turned waiter at the pie shop. He’s haunting as he croons “Not While I’m Around” to his beloved Mrs. Lovett. “Sweeney” is the rare musical where an actor having fought Vecna on Netflix actually adds to their performance.
Not all is perfect at the pie shop, though. What hinders “Hamilton” director Kail’s conventional but by no means blasé production is Steven Hoggett’s largely pointless choreography.
Hoggett has done brilliant work in past shows such as “Once” and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” in which movement sprung up in an organic, magical way.
But in “Sweeney Todd,” the dancing and gestures he’s staged are overabundant and clumsy, stealing our attention away from Sondheim’s peerless lyrics and relaxing the should-be-tense songs. Stillness is much more frightening than actors spastically chopping the air with their hands.
And there are times when it seems like Kail just didn’t like a song very much, so he tacked on an interpretive dance upstage on Mimi Lien’s bridge-and-tunnel set to move it along.
Regardless, all it takes is a swell of the orchestra and the hellfire wails of the chorus to joltingly remind us we’re at one of the greatest musicals ever written.
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