By Tulis McCall
You have to admit someone was smoking the good stuff when they got the idea to take a 19th century story of serial murders committed by Sweeney Todd the barber and turn it into a foot tapping musical.
This is the third time I have seen this musical – the 2005 production with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris and the 2017 Tooting Arts Club production at the Barrow Street Theatre in which the entire theater was turned into a bake shop complete with pies. Both of these were entrancing.
So I was expecting to love this production in spades.
Not so much. Mostly because half the time I could not understand what as being sung – especially by Annaleigh Ashford. Ms. Ashford is a delicious comic, but she is not known for her diction. And while she was indeed funny, she was often unintelligible (to me). Mrs. Lovett is a complex character, who freely admits to serving the worst pies in London, and follows that admission up with the hatching the scheme of murdering the townsfolk and putting the flesh into meat pies. All the while she also plies Todd (Josh Grobin) with suggestions of partnership and domesticity. For whatever reason this production has chosen a lighter touch. For me this yanks the stuffing out of the tale.
And this tale is a whopper. The charm of this musical the last two times I saw it, however, was that it pulled me into this preposterous story. On the face of it, watching a crazy man murder people is not my cuppa, but Sweeney Todd of my past dictated otherwise. The sad unfolding of the tale of revenge wound down like a mechanical doll. In this production there was no winding down, there was only a steady march to the gallows and an unending trail of bodies.
In short, this production never hooked me. Josh Groban’s revenge never got above a simmer. The daughter Joanna (Maria Bilbao) never blossomed fully enough to carry a major share of the plot. The only character that seemed alive to me was the slimy Judge Turpin (Jamie Jackson) whose every move made me squirm.
The lighting design by Natasha Katz and the music by Stephen Sondheim alone should have been enough to grab me – but they weren’t.
I admit to being in the extreme minority here as everyone around me was laughing and cheering the story on. One couple in back of me even insisted on singing along until they were asked to cease and desist.
Everybody performed with grace and commitment. For whatever reason I did not feel much more than interested. This, as I have said many times, is part of the magic of the arts and particularly the theatre. It only seats one inside you. Two people can see the exact same show in the exact same night and they see two different productions.
This one might be right up your ally, especially if you are fans of Groban or Ashford.
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Hugh Wheeler, From and Adaptation by Christopher Bond; Directed by Thomas Kail
WITH Josh Groban, Annaleigh Ashford, Jordan Fisher, Gaten Matarazzo, Ruthie Ann Miles, Maria Bilbao, Jamie Jackson, John Rapson, Nicholas Christopher, Jeanna de Waal, Galyana Castillo, Jonathan Christopher, Dwayne Cooper, Kyrie Courter, Taeler Cyrus,Timothy Hughes, Paul-Jordan Jansen, Alicia Kaori, Michael Kuhn, Raymond J. Lee, Megan Ort, Patricia Phillips, Mia Pinero, Samantha Pollino, Lexi Rabadi, Nathan Salstone, Kristie Dale Sanders, Stephen Tewksbury, Daniel Torres, Felix Torrez-Ponce, DeLaney Westfall, Henn Winkler
Alex Lacamoire – Music Supervisor, Steven Hoggett – choreography Mimi Lien – set design, Emilio Sosa – costume design, Natasha Katz – lighting design, Nevin Steinberg – sound design, J. Jared Janas- Wig, Hair, & Makeup Designer and special effects design is by Jeremy Chernick