Report From New York (Tony Edition): Sweeney Returns With Scope Rarely Seen Since 1979

We made one of our twice-a-year visits to New York theater last month to catch almost certain Tony nominees and a couple of shows that opened just after we were there last fall. Intermittently before the certain-to-be-strange June 11 Tony Awards, we will share reviews of seven productions and performances that may or may not win, may or may not tour. The shows are: Life of Pi, Parade, Sweeney Todd, Some Like It Hot, Kimberly Akimbo, Peter Pan Goes Wrong and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. Links to other reviews in this series can be found at the bottom as the reviews run. Last November, we reviewed contenders Leopoldstadt, & Juliet and Death of a Salesman.

By Bill Hirschman

Since the moment the deafening factory whistle screeched in agony at the beginning of Sweeney Todd in 1979, impossibly filling the huge cavern of what was then named the Uris Theatre, the masterpiece by Stephen Sondheim, Hugh Wheeler and Hal Prince has undergone a score of interpretations and re-envisioning – nearly all of them valid.

It’s been done with a small cast playing the instruments, it’s been performed in a small recreation of Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop, it’s been done with symphony orchestras but no sets, it’s been treated as a chamber piece and as an opera.

But it’s rarely been restored to the breathtaking visual scope of that initial production that featured, among other things, a huge Broadway orchestra, a community-sized cast and the massive skeleton of an iron foundry dwarfing the proceedings reflecting humanity crushed in the Industrial Revolution – that last being Prince’s vision with Sondheim’s reluctant approval.

So one of the many welcome virtues of the current revival at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre is the return of a full-fledged, full-throated, fully-produced edition with an large unimpeachable cast, an unusually sizeable 26-piece orchestra, generous production values and an A-list 21st Century creative team.

Much of the praise rightfully has been focused on pop star Josh Groban doing full justice to a slightly different take on the title role (after surprising theatergoers with Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812), and the fast-ascending Broadway star Annaleigh Ashford who was Dot in a revival of Sunday in the Park With George plus Kinky Boots and You Can’t Take It With You, investing Nellie with more humor and youth than some predecessors. They deserve the accolades; more on them later.

But the size and scope are a welcome gift for Sondheads like this critic. The night we saw it, the crowd became happily unhinged with cheers as the opening Dies Irae-like organ prelude resounded and an array of London citizenry from the whole range of economic straits emerged from the smoke-choked gloom under a soot-stained stone arch yawning across the proscenium.

What director Thomas Kail (Hamilton), music supervisor and former Miamian Alex Lacamoire (also Hamilton), and choreographer Steven Hoggett (Curious Incident among much else) have all wrought is an unassailably satisfying revenge tragedy lightened with dark humor. They have pursued a faithful-to-the-creators’ rendition down to hiring the original orchestrator, the great Jonathan Tunick, and a dozen first-rate designers.

Yet, even for those who know every moment in advance, Kail and company have infused every moment with a freshness while staying totally loyal to the piece. And while this is still “a tale,” he ensures the cast is not presenting a fable with a theatrical distance; they inhabit every moment with the intensity of a genuine drama. Further, the evening seems to have a more physical movement feel to the staging, possibly enhanced by Hoggett, whose work has ranged from the marathon Harry Potter play to my favorite, the amazing theatrically staged drama about a British military unit in Iraq, Black Watch.

But, of course, its all rooted in the performances, which everyone involved clearly designed to be unique to this production and therefore engaging for those of us who have to resist singing along with the score.

Up until the Big Turn at the end of the first act, the bearded Groban delivers someone clearly haunted and in pain but quieter, more tamped down, murmuring and mumbling as someone who has lost weight and lifeforce itself in prison. This is intentional because when he cuts loose in “A Little Priest” and thereafter, we see a strong, vibrant madman who comes alive, albeit to slit throats. Groban is especially faithful to singing Sondheim in the manner the master would have wanted with not a shred of someone whose home must be covered in music award nominations.

Justifiably, Ashford has received even more praise for her unique highly comedic take on Mrs. Lovett, highlighted in her “By The Sea.” Her more nimble Nellie is as much as practical pragmatist and enabler as she is Sweeney’s adoring supporter. She never takes a moment to consider what they are doing other than how to make the most of its advantages. Her more physical Nellie is younger than some earlier incarnations and is actively trying to seduce Sweeney in multiple scenes.

The supporting cast is mostly first-rate as well: Ruthie Ann Miles as the beggar woman, Maria Bilbao as a Johanna with not just a lovely soprano but the most clear enunciation of” Green Finch and Linnet Bird” we’ve heard. Jordan Fisher is an adequate as Anthony although not in the same class as the others. Special note about Nicholas Christopher as Pirelli: Groban could not appear one matinee that a colleague saw and he reported that Christopher was every bit as good as Groban if not better as the Sweeney standby.

Warning: Inexplicably, Kail was not as careful as he should have been as far as sight lines from the far left and right in the mezzanine, especially given some key moments occurring far stage left. Buy your tickets accordingly.

This production is slated to play through the end of the year, and a national tour has just been announced for spring 2025. Whether it will have the depth and breadth of this edition is anybody’s guess.

The current production is nominated for eight Tony Awards in the musical categories, including Revival of a Musical, Actor in a Leading Role, Actress in a Leading Role, Actress in a Featured Role (Ruthie Ann Miles), Scenic Design, Lighting Design, Sound Design, and choreography.

Review of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, click here

Review of Life of Pi, click here. 

Review of Some Like It Hot, click here

Review of Peter Pan Goes Wrong, click here.

Review of Parade, click here

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