theater review

A Sweeney Todd That Leans Into the Great Black Pit

Groban and Ashford in Sweeney Todd, at the Lunt-Fontanne. Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

There are two stars of the Sweeney Todd revival that should really be billed above the big names leading this production: Its orchestra and its shadows. The former, conducted by Hamilton’s Alex Lacamoire, provides a full 26-piece rendering of Jonathan Tunick’s crushed-velvet orchestrations for Stephen Sondheim’s score, swaddling the theater in thrumming, grinding grandeur. The shadows, via Natasha Katz’s lighting, surround your field of vision with a similar luscious miasma. Think of Dickens writing “fog everywhere” in the opening of Bleak House. Katz keeps the majority of the stage looking sooty with pinpricks of light illuminating each actor, as if the action takes place in the belly of a coal-burning anaconda. When Sweeney refers to London as a “hole in the world like a great black pit,” you’re there with him in the pressurized depths where hungry and murderous creatures have evolved.

Complimenting a production’s lighting is traditionally the way critics avoid talking about everything else, but the enveloping atmosphere is the whole emphasis and advantage of Thomas Kail’s production of Sweeney. Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Victorian gothic masterwork has been revived on Broadway twice since premiering in 1979, both times on a smaller scale than Hal Prince’s mega-grand original. New York has also seen concert stagings and close-ups Off Broadway. Kail, riding high after directing Hamilton, aims to ratchet Sweeney all the way back up, deploying a cast of 25, a two-level set by Mimi Lien with a towering crane — going big and crucially, expressionistic. He’s not presenting social commentary as much as he’s enveloping us in a collective nightmare. His London is full of phantoms slipping in and out of the fog.

Foremost among those phantoms: Josh Groban’s Sweeney, who glints but does not gleam in the darkness. Groban’s got a name big enough to greenlight a revival on this scale (for that we thank him) as well as a rather pinchable nice-guy mien, which could have been a problem. He’s definitely playing against type — but against-type can be interesting, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street as your mom’s favorite serial killer, singing some of Sondheim’s most exquisite melodies over its tensest scenes. “Pretty Women” comes when Sweeney’s within reach of the judge’s throat, and the sweet honey of Groban’s voice gives those moments an extra-eerie oomph. I wanted him to keep working that angle, but when Sweeney’s anger rises, Groban tries to get his gruff on and the result is unconvincing. His “Epiphany” is more memorable for the way his shadow, illuminated by the footlights, stalks the back of the stage than for his self-conscious madness. You can feel him trying to summon an inferno behind his eyes. He gets to a wildfire, not hell itself.

That limitation stands out because Annaleigh Ashford, as Mrs. Lovett, has gone feral. She’s one of those actors who will happily commit above and beyond whatever’s asked. (I often think about her doing a song and dance sequence for CBS about the concept of autumn TV programming.) Here, she’s lusty and needy to the nth degree, pulling big laughs, sliding down a staircase on her butt like she’s in a broad farce, making a loud and strange approximation of a seagull’s squawk in “By the Sea” (Chekhovian!), and deploying a cloud-cuckooland Cockney that makes “England” sound like “Engelond” (Chaucerian!). As with Mrs. Lovett’s pies, the overbaked performance may stick to your palate, but it works within the context of Kail’s heightened staging. Lovett reads as a frustrated performer — she does love her lightly singed harmonium — who, instead of ending up in a dance hall, has locked onto Sweeney as the audience she most needs to please. The consummation comes in “A Little Priest,” both because Ashford takes every opportunity to underline the sexual undertones of eating flesh — she humps the air on “Yes, Mr. Todd!” and fondles the area in front of Groban’s crotch to emphasize the discussion of a rear admiral’s privates — but more because Sweeney is actually into her jokes.

In their “A Little Priest,” as elsewhere, the psychosexual drama of Sweeney takes the lead. Sweeney and Lovett are more busy punning by way of foreplay for you to focus much on the class war of the number. Their revenge plot is less a righteous up-yours to those above and more a personal crusade. It’s both, because everything in this musical means many things at once, but placing emphasis on the erotic side sets the production spinning in a particular direction. The second act plunges further into violence, with the city on fire and the killings piling up, and the emotions that get big while the focus remains tight. The thing still feels like a chamber opera even on a stage full of bodies. Steven Hoggett choreographs the ensemble to swirl like a murmuration of birds, in sync and inhuman. (He also did The Cursed Child, which explains why I expected everyone to bring out a wand.) The massed crowd isolates Sweeney and Lovett on the fringe and provides them with the anonymity they need to pull off their scheme. In the production’s most chilling moment, they disappear into it. You imagine the pair might rematerialize behind you as you wait at a stoplight some night soon.

The rest of the characters in Sweeney are attached to that crowd too, each twisted as if adapting in order to survive within it. Nicholas Christopher makes an imposing Pirelli, seemingly a foot taller than everyone else onstage and still a buffoon. Gaten Matarazzo, stomping onto the stage to sing the praises of his boss’s miracle elixir with childish glee, immediately gets the sympathy of both the audience and Mrs. Lovett. John Rapson’s Beadle is so extraordinarily greasy it’s impossible not to wonder how he might look on a bun. Only Jordan Fisher’s Anthony and Maria Bilbao’s Johanna don’t stick as clearly. Both sound lovely, but loveliness alone isn’t enough. The young lovers are always a difficult proposition in a musical that gives you such a bounty of grotesques, and here the two of them get lost among them.

Ruthie Ann Miles as the Beggar Woman. Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Spare a thought and an alm, however, for the miserable Beggar Woman. Ruthie Ann Miles, whom I think of as magisterial given her performances in Here Lies Love and The King and I, does something incredible with the part, emerging from the mass of the ensemble bent over and furious, with a voice that still pierces high and true in contrast to her defeated posture. (I feel so much for her lower back.) She’s the way into Sweeney’s final emotional wallop, a character who seems secondary suddenly shifting into the center of the tale right at its end. Then, this Sweeney, so cloaked in darkness, inverts itself in the blaze of Mrs. Lovett’s oven. The consequences of the killing spree rebound back on Lovett and Sweeney as it becomes clear what Lovett’s hiding and who Sweeney’s killed. Madness gives way to gentleness and tragedy. The great black pit of the industrial metropolis contains people after all.

A Sweeney Todd That Leans Into the Great Black Pit