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Groban and Ashford ignite the flames of a funny, sexier ‘Sweeney Todd’

Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s masterpiece, directed by ‘Hamilton’s’ Thomas Kail, has its official Broadway opening

Annaleigh Ashford and Josh Groban in Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's “Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” a revival of the 1979 musical. (Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)
5 min

NEW YORK — The shimmering chords strike up, the blood runs cold, and we’re back in the pit of giddy depravity once again with one of American musical lovers’ favorite waltzes on the dark side: “Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” This time, it’s sung by one of America’s favorite sons of song, Josh Groban, alongside an exuberantly daft Annaleigh Ashford — a team that anchors this Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler masterpiece solidly in vocal muscularity and a sickening comic craziness.

Director Thomas Kail, of “Hamilton” fame, shapes a mellifluously strapping revival of the 1979 musical, which marked its official Broadway opening Sunday night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, to the distinct contours of his stars’ personalities. Which translates in this production as taking a cue from a line delivered late in the show by the ensemble of unnerved Londoners: “Isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?” they sing, gazing out from the mist on a set by Mimi Lien that looks as if it has been forged in a haunted ironworks.

It does feel with Groban’s more demonstrably emotional Sweeney — whose skin is not so pale, and his eye not so odd — that the character could indeed be sitting there beside you, flipping through his Playbill. The choices the production makes will divide “Sweeney Todd” purists, who have grown accustomed to hollowed-out killing machines in the title role. But Groban provides ample evidence here that he can carry a Sondheim musical on his own terms, and certainly one in which he is surrounded with as much first-class talent as Kail assembles on West 46th Street.

That principally includes Ashford’s Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney’s partner in the cannibalistic pastry business that is the musical’s sardonic centerpiece. Ashford always elbows her gleeful way to the center of attention. Her seemingly contemporary take turns the character into another brand of carnivore, one with a sexualized appetite for living flesh. In other words, she’s the handsiest Mrs. Lovett you’re ever likely to encounter, stroking and caressing and otherwise making her physical attraction to Sweeney abundantly apparent. (It has never been made so clear before that this unconsummated relationship is purely one-sided.)

Groban’s celebrated baritone sounds lustrous under some technically challenging circumstances (and we’ll get to those): His renditions of “No Place Like London,” “Pretty Women,” with Jamie Jackson’s Judge Turpin, and especially “Epiphany” are versions you’ll want to deposit in your aural memory bank. Other rewardingly memorable voices belong to Maria Bilbao as Sweeney’s daughter, Johanna, Ruthie Ann Miles as the pitiable Beggar Woman and John Rapson as the scabrous Beadle Bamford. And as the waif Tobias, Gaten Matarazzo (best known as Dustin on Netflix’s “Stranger Things”) brings clarion authority to a heart-melting “Not While I’m Around.”

The barnlike environs of the Lunt-Fontanne prove to be one of Broadway’s less accommodating spaces for savoring Sondheim’s intricate lyrics and Jonathan Tunick’s timeless orchestrations. From my seat in the orchestra, the acoustics in many scenes — which Kail often places upstage or on a catwalk high above — were frustratingly muddy. Call me a stickler, but I need to catch every brilliant rhyme, particularly in a priceless duet such as “A Little Priest,” in which Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney dream up their menu of human happy meals, job title by job title.

Some of Sondheim’s best jokes are swallowed up in the imbalance between singers and orchestra, a situation exacerbated by a perhaps unanticipated and more felicitous problem: the audiences’ frequent boisterous response. Ashford and Groban do milk the laughs a bit in “A Little Priest,” which only really becomes an issue when they share a bit of Sondheimian wit that we can’t hear.

Presumably, this is fixable and will result in time in a production whose technical elements will blend more fluidly. This “Sweeney Todd” can already put the movement by Steven Hoggett in its win column for seamlessness. The choreographer creates a vocabulary for the chorus — sometimes in silhouettes enhanced by lighting designer Natasha Katz — that adds to the sense of a world staggered by cruelty and misery. Redemption in “Sweeney,” after all, exists in strictly limited supply.

Jordan Fisher plays Anthony, the sailor who rescues Johanna from Judge Turpin’s incestuous clutches, and he and Bilbao infuse their romantic subplot with a joyful verve. (Kail has chosen to delete Turpin’s problematic solo, in which he obsesses lasciviously over his ward.) The casting in general veers toward youthful — though Groban is actually three years older than Len Cariou was when he debuted as Sweeney in the Broadway original opposite Angela Lansbury.

That original production 44 years ago shattered me in a way that rewired my understanding of the feelings a musical could ignite. I still hear the shrill whistle that director Harold Prince added to the soundscape — an embellishment every bit as heart-stopping as the shrieking violins in “Psycho.” Kail goes his own way in 2023, opting not to attempt the abject horror of which the musical was capable when it was freshly minted.

This “Sweeney Todd” is funnier, more idiosyncratically human, so maybe a beat or two less explosive than what I remember. But it remains an evening of myriad irresistible moments, with a score that sings us into everlastingly blissful submission.

Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Thomas Kail. Choreography, Steven Hoggett; sets, Mimi Lien; costumes, Emilio Sosa; music supervision, Alex Lacamoire; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Nevin Steinberg. With Nicholas Christopher, Stephen Tewksbury. About 2 hours, 50 minutes. At Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St., New York.