There are two Broadway shows currently playing that touch on the taboo of cannibalism, “The Life of Pi,” and the brilliant, not-to-be-missed “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” directed by Thomas Kail (Hamilton) with this one highlighting the issue from the very start.
In “Sweeney Todd,” two twisted, broken people don’t leave any waste in their murderous path. It started with Sweeney, a ruined barber who was wrongly imprisoned. His wife and child were taken away from him by an immoral judge. It’s easy to understand why he’s still so furious and why swinging his blade toward those that hurt him is all that consumes his soul. And there’s Mrs. Lovett who makes (she admits) “the worse pies in London” who changes her fate by mincing and using human flesh to make her pies which quickly become the talk of Fleet Street. She wails in
the beginning that the alley cats are too quick and don’t provide much meat anyway. She appeals to the growing insanity of Mr. Todd, and away they go! Oh, it’s important to mention that she loves him. He’s not interested in anything but revenge.
As you can imagine, the business of slitting throats, grinding the bodies and baking that meat into pies is a wicked business, but in this, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s macabre 1979 musical, which just opened on Broadway under Kail’s direction, the classic musical about making people-to-pastries have been elevated.
The casting is perfect. It stars Josh Groban (Sweeny Todd) and Annaleigh Ashford (Mrs. Lovett), who easily handle the vocals of the lushly orchestrated and opera-scale musical numbers. For these two (and the ensemble), singing these arrangements seems as easy as breathing air. It’s understood that this is a brilliant showcase for their respective talents. Groban is a full baritone and fills the theater with energy and voice. As for Ashford, she tells us a deeper part of the story; she’s singing with every movement she makes is telling. You can’t take your eyes off her, which gives a genuine thrill. The role of the lovesick originated on Broadway by Angela Lansbury.
The other casting of central characters is equally perfect. There’s the innocent and wide-eyed Anthony, who falls for Sweeney’s daughter Johanna (Jordan Fisher and Maria Bilbao, respectively) who’s held prisoner by her “guardian,” the man who ruined her young life.
That “guardian” is the crooked Judge Turpin (Jamie Jackson), who smashed Sweeney’s former life, getting him tossed into jail, for life, on false charges, and his brown-nosing lackey, Beadle Bamford (John Rapson). Drifting throughout the tragedy is the ever-present Beggar Woman (Ruthie Ann Miles) and the orphan Tobias (Gaten Matarazzo, “Stranger Things”).
This production under Kail’s watch makes the hairs on your body stand up. The set is cleverly designed, turning the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre into several places, including London Street, a pie shot, a suspended bridge, a Barbershop, and a basement where the roaring fire and dirty business of chopping people up occur. The mystery and the art of hiding in plain sight owe much to the lighting design of Natasha Katz.
Groban (“Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”) brings to life a more gentleman-like Sweeney dipped in empathy, but at the center (and never lost) is a cry for justice and, therefore, blood, all fighting for space underneath his ravenous desperation. Watching him become unhinged is like being unable to look away from a car accident. Perhaps his voice can create a thousand links of understanding of what it must feel like to be so wronged by life. By the time he swings his gleaming razor, you are no longer innocent, and the first tingle of those hairs rising is long gone.
Blood flows. Again, and again, and again.
Actress Ashford (Mrs. Lovett) is a standout. She can’t help but leave her indelible mark on the role. Her talent carries an element of surprise, making her even more dangerous and unpredictable than Mr. Todd. She’s crazy, like a fox with little to no heart except for her unrequited love for the murderous barber.
The music of “Sweeney Todd” is played by a 26-person orchestra and sung by soaring voices that know how to fly on the notes. The result is an experience all on its own.
‘Sweeney Todd’ — Sondheim Revival on Broadway now playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre; Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN. Directed by Thomas Kail. Choreographed by Steven Hoggett. Sets, Mimi Lien; costumes, Emilio Sosa; lights, Natasha Katz; sound, Nevin Steinberg; hair and wig, J. Jared Janas; make-up, J. Jared Janas; special effects, Jeremy Chernick; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick; musical supervisor, Alex Lacamoire; production stage manager, Cody Renard Richard.