'Sweeney Todd' review: Josh Groban is a cutthroat crooner in spectacular Broadway revival
NEW YORK – Don't call him "Teeny Todd."
After three stripped-down revivals – most recently off-Broadway in 2017, set in an immersive pie shop – "Sweeney Todd" swings his razor once again in a sumptuous and thrilling production that has quickly become Broadway's hottest new ticket.
"Sweeney," which opened Sunday at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, is directed by Thomas Kail ("Hamilton" and "In the Heights"). Set in 19th-century London, the musical thriller follows a bloodthirsty barber (Josh Groban) as he returns home with a new moniker to seek revenge on the nefarious Judge Turpin (Jamie Jackson), who wrongfully imprisoned him for 15 years. He teams up with the deranged Mrs. Lovett (Annaleigh Ashford), who pushes pies below his barbershop and helps dispense of Sweeney's victims in gruesome and unsavory fashion.
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Like the 1979 Broadway original, which starred Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou, Kail's production is jaw-dropping in its scale. The centerpiece of Mimi Lien's shapeshifting scenic design is an enormous, multitiered factory crane that lurches over the cast and audience throughout the show: air-dropping Sweeney's death-dealing barber chair, and at one point, doubling as an insane asylum.
Natasha Katz's lighting paints striking, crimson silhouettes, while the rousing 26-person orchestra (sizable by Broadway standards) gives Stephen Sondheim's unforgettable score the richness it deserves.
Groban, a chart-topping classical singer, returns to Broadway after his Tony-nominated performance in 2016's "Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812." Scruffy and sullen, he acquits himself admirably as the embittered Sweeney, whose wife was raped and daughter (Maria Bilbao) was seized by Turpin. His introspective take on the character is at times frustratingly aloof, lacking the simmering anger and deep well of sadness that Michael Cerveris so hauntingly played in the 2005 revival.
But his lush baritone is, unsurprisingly, a glorious match for Sondheim ballads "My Friends" and "Pretty Women." And when he does unleash Sweeney's monstrous side in "Epiphany" and the Act 2 climax, Groban is downright terrifying to behold.
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Gaten Matarazzo ("Stranger Things") is a revelation as Tobias, a street urchin whom Lovett takes under her wing. The charismatic young actor achingly conveys the boy's growing suspicions about Sweeney, and his tender "Not While I'm Around" is an emotional highlight. Ruthie Ann Miles is similarly heartbreaking as the despondent and mysterious Beggar Woman, who feverishly warns townsfolk about mischief afoot.
But this "Sweeney" belongs to the spellbinding Ashford, a Broadway veteran known more recently for her TV work in CBS sitcom "B Positive" and Hulu's "Welcome to Chippendales." From the moment she springs up from behind the counter, her Lovett is instantly endearing and almost pitiable in her delusion. Desperate for Sweeney's affection, she constantly hangs on his arm and flirtatiously pretzels herself around him, refusing to believe she's just a means to an end. Ashford is bloody brilliant in her elastic expressiveness and slapstick comedy, throwing and spinning herself across the stage in showstoppers "A Little Priest" and "The Worst Pies in London."
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If Kail's production occasionally missteps, it's in Steven Hoggett's needlessly busy choreography, which finds the ensemble popping and locking through the chilling opening number and harrowing "Poor Thing." But that's ultimately small potatoes in an otherwise first-rate revival that should appeal to both Sondheim purists and fans of Johnny Depp's grim 2007 movie, a Victorian melodrama by way of Hot Topic.
Unlike Lovett's repugnant meat pies, there's nothing half-baked about this "Sweeney Todd," which in its stunning final moments, reminds you just how exhilarating live theater can be.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Sweeney Todd' review: Josh Groban, Annaleigh Ashford kill on Broadway