‘Sweeney Todd’ reviews: ‘Irresistible’ revival of Stephen Sondheim masterpiece

·7 min read

First “Company,” then “Into the Woods,” and now the demon barber of Fleet Street. In the year or so since legendary composer Stephen Sondheim’s death, Broadway has seen an increasing number of revivals of his works. The trend continued on March 26 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre with the opening of a new production of his masterpiece, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Tony nominee and internationally-renowned vocalist Josh Groban plays the menacing title role as the wronged barber out for revenge, starring opposite Tony winner Annaleigh Ashford as Mrs. Lovett, the schemer who devises baking Todd’s victims into meat pies in an austere nineteenth-century London.

Led by Tony-winning “Hamilton” director Thomas Kail, the ensemble also boasts Tony winner Ruthie Ann Miles (“The King and I”), Jordan Fisher, Gaten Matarazzo, and many others amongst its 25 players. Kail has also enlisted three-time Tony winner Alex Lacamoire as music supervisor and conductor of a 26-piece orchestra, playing legend Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations.

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This full-scale remounting of Sondheim’s opus received raves. In his Critic’s Pick review, Jesse Green (New York Times) calls this production a “ravishingly sung, deeply emotional and strangely hilarious” revival. He compliments Groban, “whose quasi-operatic pop baritone perfectly encompasses the range of the role,” and Ashford, “a brilliant comic for whom comedy is not the ends but the means.” Of the ensemble, he spotlights Matarazzo for his “especially haunting” performance of the second-act number “Not While I’m Around,” plus Maria Bilbao as Todd’s daughter Johanna, who “makes fascinating sense of an often-bland character.” Green also applauds the “glorious” orchestra, Mimi Lien’s “awesomely vast sets,” and Natasha Katz’s “extraordinary lighting.”

WATCH 2023 Tony Awards slugfest: 15 productions vie for places in Musical races

Peter Marks (Washington Post) similarly deems the production a “mellifluously strapping revival” that is “idiosyncratically human” and packed with “myriad irresistible moments.” He heaps kudos upon the “exuberantly daft” Ashford and Matarazzo, who “brings clarion authority to a heart-melting ‘Not While I’m Around’.” For world-building, he singles out Lien’s set that “looks as if it has been forged in a haunted ironworks,” and points out choreographer Steven Hoggett’s “vocabulary for the chorus” that “adds to the sense of a world staggered by cruelty and misery.”

Giving the production four-out-of-five stars, Adam Feldman (Time Out New York) calls the production “thrilling.” Although he says Groban “should have a bit more edge” as a homicidal barber, he still commends him for how he “affectingly conveys the sense of a once-good man hollowed out by grief.” He calls Ashford a “triumph” for her “breathtaking originality.” From the featured cast, he highlights the “touching” Matarazzo, Nicholas Christopher as Todd’s rival Pirelli, the “poignant” Miles, plus Jamie Jackson as the conniving judge and source of Todd’s troubles, and Bilbao. He does critique the production design, though, for how “little” it realistically evokes nineteenth-century London.

Based on these assessments, “Sweeney Todd” will be an undeniably strong contender at the fast-approaching 2023 Tony Awards. In an unusually crowded season of musical revivals, it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with “Into the Woods” and “Parade” in a nail-biter of a race for Best Revival, as all three productions garnered rave reviews. But unlike those productions, both of which originated as New York City Center Encores! productions with somewhat minimal concert stagings, this “Sweeney” has an epic scale that could certainly benefit its director. Thomas Kail could very well wind up with his second competitive Tony, if he’s not held off by someone’s work on a new musical such as “Kimberly Akimbo” or “Some Like it Hot.”

WATCH 2023 Tony Awards slugfest: 22 productions vie for places in Play races

As the title character, Groban looks strong for a Tony nomination, as does his scene partner Ashford. While both earned almost universally positive (if not occasionally rapturous) reviews, they will compete in hotly-contested categories for the win. Groban will vie for his first trophy against Ben Platt from “Parade” — to whom he lost the first time around when “Dear Evan Hansen” competed against “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” — and J. Harrison Ghee (“Some Like It Hot”), plus others that could include Christian Borle (“Some Like It Hot”) and Brian d’Arcy James (“Into the Woods”). For her part, the Tony-winning Ashford will likely face off against previous winner Victoria Clark (“Kimberly Akimbo”), standout Michaela Diamond (“Parade”), potentially one or two “Woods” actresses, Sara Bareilles and Patina Miller, or possibly “Hamilton” nominee Phillipa Soo for “Camelot.”

Believe it or not, all the past Broadway productions of “Sweeney Todd” have only earned one Tony bid for a Featured performer, back in 2006 for Manoel Felciano as Toby, the role Matarazzo plays in 2023. This year could certainly add some more names to that criminally-short list, as the Tony-winning Miles and newcomer Bilbao earned strong notices, as did standout Matarazzo, Christopher, and even Fisher, all of whom could earn their first-ever nominations. While these categories are overstuffed in this embarrassingly rich season of musicals and musical revivals on Broadway, if the small number of Tony nominators love this production as much as critics, it could land a couple of noms in these races.

For such a sumptuous production, “Sweeney Todd” will likely make a killing in the craft categories, too. The first time scenic designer Mimi Lien worked with Groban on Broadway on “The Great Comet,” she took home a Tony, so a second nomination for her well-received work seems in the offing. So, too, does one for Natasha Katz, who is the reigning champion in the lighting design category for her work on “MJ The Musical” last year. In all, she has an astounding 15 nominations, including seven wins for “Aida,” “The Coast of Utopia,” “Once,” “The Glass Menagerie,” “An American in Paris,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” and “MJ,” so she could very well extend her tally for “Todd.” Twice-nominated costume designer Emilio Sosa and four-time nominated choreographer Steven Hoggett are certainly possible nominees, too.

The original production might be a good benchmark against which to measure this revival’s prospects. In 1979, “Sweeney Todd” was nominated for nine Tonys and won all but one, including: Best Musical, Score, Book, Actor (Len Cariou), Actress (Angela Lansbury), Scenic Design, Costume Design, and Direction (Harold Prince). While this revival cannot compete for score, book, or orchestrations, it could absolutely make up ground with nominations that the original missed out on, like Featured Actress, Featured Actor, and Choreography. It will certainly look to outpace the hauls of prior revivals: the 1989 production scored four noms and no wins, and the 2005 production landed six bids and won two of them for Direction (John Doyle) and Orchestrations (Sarah Travis).

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