Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 26, 2023
Cast: 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, and Hennessy Winkler.
Theater: Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 West 46th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue), New York NY
One of the assets is Josh Groban, whose only previous Broadway appearance was in the role of Pierre in Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812 nearly seven years ago. Here he defies naysayers who suspected his generally tenor vocal range would not allow him to capture the baritone the lead role calls for. They were wrong. His singing is perfect for the role. And at least as significantly, he demonstrates an apparent ease with projecting Sondheim's lyrics with a crystal clarity that is unfortunately lacking in some of the other cast members, including those with much more Broadway experience.
Unfortunately, one of those whose words are difficult to catch is Groban's co-star Annaleigh Ashford in the all-important role of the "eminently practical" Mrs. Lovett, Todd's partner-in-crime who longs to be his partner-in-bed. Ashford, an expert at physical comedy, seems to be more focused on milking laughs (something she largely succeeds at, to judge from the widespread guffaws she draws from the audience) than in embodying the character. Nothing wrong with interpreting roles in different ways, but there are times when the show becomes something akin to "Nellie Lovett: The Demon Scene Stealer of Fleet Street."
Ashford's performance is indicative of the production's biggest flaw, and that is its inconsistent overall tone, a problem that would seem to lie at the feet of the director, Thomas Kail, best known for helming a little something called Hamilton. There are the intentionally comic scenes (the juicy "A Little Priest" and Mrs. Lovett's fantasy number "By the Sea") that, when performed in a straightforward way, capture the variations on madness that run through the two lead characters, yet which here are so overblown that they take us out of the overall show. At other times, there are what seem to be efforts to take us back to the tone of the long-ago original melodrama, epitomized by Steven Hoggett's slithery, arm-waving, weaving-motion choreography for the ensemble to perform. And finally, there are the straightforward moments that go from very dark humor to even darker dread, epitomized by the final, and in my view, the best 30-40 minutes of the production.
Throughout, much of the action is overemphasized where it should be played out more subtly; the plot itself and Sondheim's songs should be allowed to do the heavy lifting. Instead, Mrs. Lovett is too silly. Johanna (Maria Bilbao) is too far locked into her panicky madness, even if it is justified by the plot turns. The chorus (great singers collectively) come off as robotic in their tight-packed coordinated movements.
If there is one element that serves as the glue to hold it all together, it is Natasha Katz's stunning lighting design of deep shadows and judiciously-employed spotlighting (e.g., the glint of Sweeny's razor) that set the most consistent tone for the evening. Mimi Lien's set design also does a fine job of providing the overall industrial look and the altogether frightening basement where the final horrors unfold, doing wonders to establish and maintain the atmosphere in this Sweeney Todd. And, thankfully, there is that lovely barber chair in place so that we can fully appreciate those very close shaves. When it works, it works extremely well, and there are great pleasures to be found throughout, if not consistently, so that it is well worth visiting this production, whether again or for the first time. But perhaps before you head to the theater, you should consider listening to a recording of the original Broadway cast so you can hear those lyrics.