Sweeney Todd review: Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford are a shear delight in Broadway revival

·7 min read
Sweeney Todd on Broadway. Photos by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman
Sweeney Todd on Broadway. Photos by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman Sweeney Todd

From theater kids to horror enthusiasts: everyone knows the tale of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and his pie-selling partner in crime Mrs. Lovett.

The fictitious throat-slitting shaver has been brought to life across various media over the centuries since his debut in a Victorian penny dreadful, but none have enraptured audiences quite like late theater legend Stephen Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler's 1979 musical adaptation. The production, which starred Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury as Todd and Mrs. Lovett, successfully transformed Sweeney Todd's morbid material into a larger-than-life revenge tale filled with madness, love, and plenty of bloodshed that left audiences hungry for more.

In the years since, Sweeney Todd has returned to Broadway twice: once in 1989, and again in a much smaller-scale revival starring Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris in 2005 (an Off Broadway production was staged in 2017). Now, the legend is set to haunt Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in a riveting revival that features brilliant stage direction from Thomas Kail, a thunderous 26-piece orchestra, and a star-studded cast that succeeds in bringing both big laughs and serious scares.

Sweeney Todd, of course, centers around its titular titan: an ashen, vindictive man (Josh Groban) who, after being exiled to Australia, has returned to London to take his revenge on Judge Turpin (Jamie Jackson), the corrupt official who raped his wife and kidnapped his daughter. Along the way, Todd reconnects with Mrs. Lovett (Tony award winner Annaleigh Ashford), a zany pie shop owner, and the pair strike up a devious deal to murder London's upper crust and bake them into mouthwatering meat pies for the lower-class to feast upon. Eat the rich, literally.

Meanwhile, innocent Anthony (Jordan Fisher) returns to London and falls in love at first sight with Todd's daughter Johanna (Maria Bilbao), who is locked away within Turpin's home. Together, the pair plan her escape, setting the pure-hearted sailor on a course for danger.

Sweeney Todd on Broadway. Photos by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman
Sweeney Todd on Broadway. Photos by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman Annaleigh Ashford and Josh Groban in 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street'

When it comes to casting the revival's bloodthirsty barber, Grammy-nominated pop-opera singer Josh Groban likely isn't the first person that most people would have in mind. (This is the man who won over the heart of H.E.R just three months ago in ABC's live-action Beauty and the Beast, after all!) But Groban brings marvelous method to the madman, imbuing his performance with a slow-simmering evil that steadily bubbles throughout the first act until it's uncontrollably boiling and pouring out of him as he snarls, undulates, and lunges across the stage. By act two, he successfully strikes terror each time an unsuspecting visitor steps into his barbershop only to be shipped down a chute to become tomorrow's fodder moments later.

But Groban brings a bit of humor to Todd too. He shares a tense, yet objectively hilarious moment with Gaten Matarazzo's Tobias shortly after murdering Adolfo Pirelli (Nicholas Christopher) and stashing his body in a nearby case. When the young boy happily announces that he'll wait for his master there and hops on top of the box, Groban wonderfully displays what can only be described as "awkward dad trying his best" energy as he attempts to coax Tobias away from the dead body and downstairs toward Mrs. Lovett with promises of meat pies and gin.

While his razor might be his right arm, Todd's true partner in crime is Mrs. Lovett, whose cunning survival skills are matched only by her affections for the barber. Celebrating Mrs. Lovett's lunacy (and her Cockney accent too), Ashford holds nothing back as she leans into several side-splitting bits of physical comedy — including one in which she kneels in front of Judge Turpin while on a staircase and then slowly thumps down each step to get past — throughout the show, but also expertly explores her character's tender, maternal relationship with Tobias too. The pair share a stunningly poignant moment when Matarazzo sings "Not While I'm Around" to her, a heartfelt performance that left both actors teary-eyed.

When onstage together, Ashford and Groban are a force to be reckoned with as they play out the painfully one-sided relationship between their characters. Ashford, who often adopts a starry-eyed look whenever Groban is near, is sweet and accepting of all of Todd's glaring red flags — at one point remarking to her murderous partner, "Surely one's enough for the day, dear?" — while Groban's Todd utilizes her affections for his own violent gains. At several times throughout the musical, it appeared as if Ashford was gleefully attempting to goad Groban into dropping Todd's deadpan demeanor with her increasingly outlandish antics. She succeeded only once throughout the evening — getting Groban to crack a full-bodied laugh during their phenomenal performance of "A Little Priest" — but by then she was equally laughing too, so the pair simply took a beat before proceeding with their cannibalistic crooning.

Sweeney Todd on Broadway. Photos by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman
Sweeney Todd on Broadway. Photos by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman Gaten Matarazzo in 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street'

As the morally good Anthony, Fisher brings a softness and youthful naivety to the character that is completely unaware of the reality of the situation unfolding around him. His moments with Johanna are a sweet and much-needed reprieve from the harsh and unforgiving tragedy that is Sweeney Todd, and Fisher's smooth voice soars during his stellar rendition of Anthony's sweeping, yet slightly creepy love ballad "Johanna." Meanwhile, Bilbao, who is making her Broadway debut in Sweeney Todd, taps easily into Johanna's slight stir-craziness with her quaking hands (a trait that Groban's Todd also possesses) and her initial stilted, socially awkward interactions with Anthony from her high perch.

Throw in a fiery performance by Jackson as the sinister Judge Turpin, John Rapson's hilariously horrifying version of Beadle Bamford, Ruthie Ann Miles' maddening beggarwoman, and Matarazzo's sparkling take on street smart snake oil salesboy Tobias and it's easy to see why even the show's previews have been selling out each night.

And that's not even mentioning its music. Under supervision by Alex Lacamoire (who previously worked with Kail and Sweeney's lead producer Jeffrey Seller on Hamilton), and propelled by sound designer Nevin Steinberg, Sweeney Todd's 26-piece orchestra brings Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations to life once again in a way that feels rich and rewarding. Meanwhile, Sondheim's lyrics are expertly delivered with a full range of fervor, emotion, and depth throughout the show, especially during Groban's "Epiphany," Ashford's "By the Sea," and Bilbao's operatic "Green Finch and Linnet Bird."

Sweeney Todd on Broadway. Photos by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman
Sweeney Todd on Broadway. Photos by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman The cast of 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street'

If that still wasn't enough to pique someone's interest, the show comes to life with artful scenic design by Mimi Lien, whose darkened, smoke-filled set, complete with a sprawling arch, evokes the image of London's sewer system. Lien cleverly splits the stage in half with a floating upper stage that is often used to literally separate the musical's upper and lower classes, while a huge crane — which also appeared in the original production — seamlessly pivots throughout performance to become a madhouse and the chute in which dead bodies are delivered into Mrs. Lovett's basement. At one point, the crane slowly shifts from one side of the stage to the other, but you'd seldom notice its movement thanks to lightning designer Natasha Katz's spotlights easily drawing your eye toward Olivier award-winner Steven Hoggett's spooky and contemporary choreography instead.

Noticeably missing from the performance, however, is the musical's iconic blaring whistle. The show still keeps pace well even its elimination, but it's absence might leave longtime Sweeney fans disappointed. The revival is also, unfortunately, a little light on the overall bloodshed. While Todd does slice quite a few necks, I found myself wishing that special effects designer Jeremy Chernick had been a bit more heavy-handed with the amount of fake blood that spilled out instead of the dribbles that leaked onto Emilio Sosa's costumes. It might be a hassle to wash out, but this is the demon barber of Fleet Street — let's see the precious rubies drip!

Still, with flawless performances by the entire company, there's plenty to love about this chef's kiss of a revival of one of Sondheim's greatest works. Attend the tale — you won't regret it. A

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