CELIA IPIOTIS REVIEWS "SWEENEY TODD"
New York, New York April 5, 2023 --
How can Stephen Sondheim's remarkable and ghoulish musical tragedy Sweeney Todd exhume such glee from audiences? Hugh Wheeler's book wryly comments on graft and unchecked political greed and power. It's a place where "truth" is suspended between obsession and evil in the misty and dank Dickensian streets.
Helmed by Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, the revival sweeps into the dank London mist with superb singing, acting and lots of friskily questionable characters. Rescued from the sea by a young man, Anthony (Jordan Fisher), the haunted Sweeney Todd (Josh Groban) slinks around the once familiar myriad of backstreets to the foreboding mantra "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd."
Barely making a living dishing out wretched meat pies, Mrs. Lovett (the delightful Annaleigh Ashford) spies Todd and recalls his true identity: Benjamin Barker (the barber accused of murder). Undaunted, she invites him to return to his barbering profession in the room above her meat store.
Full of energy and twisted enthusiasm, Ashford's physicality enlarges her comedic delivery. Despite the gruesome nature of the macabre musical--a barber kills clients stuffing them into meat pies for consumption -- the viler elements fuse to amplify the compulsion for human bonding.
All the theatrical elements mesh to establish grisly nights invested by the obsessive longings of a man scarred by the loss of his family.
Intent on rescuing his daughter Joanna (Maria Bilbao) from the evil Judge Turpin (Jamie Jackson), Todd first eliminates a competitor by giving him a deadly close shave. In the process, his young helper, the immensely affable Tobias (Gaten Matarazzo) becomes Lovett's assistant and de facto son.
Through the smog of industrialized London, eerily illuminated by Natasha Katz, people swarm around wood tables to eat Lovett's delectable pies, while upstairs, the barber's chair is rigged to flip into a slide (courtesy of set designer Mimi Lien) that shoots the dead bodies into the incinerator, barbecuing them.
Human threads criss-cross when the elderly Judge (responsible for all of Todd's tragedies) wants to marry Todd's daughter Johanna (an excellent Maria Bilbao). However, she's in love with the kind-hearted Anthony who delivers one of the evening's marvelous anthems "Johanna."
Director Thomas Kail's inspired direction keeps kinetic momentum at a strong boil, collaborating effectively with choreographer Steven Hoggett whose pedestrian choreography accents Kail's theatrical strategies. Indeed, Kail and Hoggett achieve the complete synchronization of sound and motion.
Wearing his character like a monk's robes, Groban, with his classically trained voice, barrells songs -- gripped by the mighty Sondheim score -- into the rafters. Groban's handmaiden, Ashford enlarges the tiniest of gestures into masterful comedic puns while Groban darkens his character through a slightly stooped back, and a psychopathic interior rage.
A powerful ensemble, and excellent musicians supervised by Alex Lacamoire, Sweeney Todd soars.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY --Celia Ipiotis