Thursday, April 25, 2024

Broadway: Revived “Sweeney Todd” Scores a Triumph with Josh Groban, Annaleigh Ashford, “Stranger Things” Star Gaten Matarazzo, and 26 Piece Orchestra


Josh Groban, you know, has always wanted to be a rock star. With his gorgeous deep baritone, he’s released several hit albums trying to make modern pop music sway in his direction. A few seasons ago he went at last into a Broadway show, “Natasha, Pierre, and the Comet of 1812,” and found his calling — almost.

Tonight, he arrived in show business an overnight sensation after 25 years of success. He debuted in the title role of “Sweeney Todd,” Stephen Sondheim‘s masterpiece of a musical, first performed in 1979. This is the third revival, directed by Thomas Kail of “Hamilton” fame and co-starring Tony award winner Annaleigh Ashford, who last we saw was being punished by CBS on a terrible sitcom called “B Positive.” Also a Tony nominee for the musical “Kinky Boots,” Ashford has been waiting for her big moment.

So it’s a thrill to say that Groban and Ashford– in the much vaunted roles of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Mrs. Lovett, the devilish pie maker — come into their own at the same time. They sweep this majestic, operatic, melodic, funny, and dark musical up and carry it off as if they’ve won the lottery. And this was a tall order tonight considering two Sweeneys were in the audience — Len Cariou, the originator, who a Tony in 79 opposite the late Angela Lansbury; and Norm Lewis, who was sensational off Broadway in the famed Barrow Street Bake Shop production.

Still, they more than pulled it off thanks to Kail’s canny set up along with choreographer Steven Hoggett. “Sweeney Todd” has such a sturdy foundation that in each of its revivals, the new directors have been able to expand on Hal Prince‘s original work. Before this there was a version “in the round” at Circle in the Square; the Patti Lupone-Michael Cerveris entry with actors playing instruments. And of course the stripped down bakery version.

But Kail is smart. He sticks to Prince’s blueprint for the first act with just a few small changes (including, alas no sharp whistle to start the show or indicate Sweeney’s crimes), concentrating on telling the tale of Benjamin Barker and his quest to avenge his wife and daughter. He also lets the actors — not just Groban and Ashford but everyone including the phenomenal Gaten Matarazzo of “Stranger Things” fame, Tony winner Ruthie Ann Miles, and Broadway vet Nicholas Christopher in a breakout performance — do their magic respectively as Toby, the Beggar Woman, and Pirelli the snake oil salesman.

It’s in the second act that Kail lets loose. After all, we know he’s inventive, he directed “Hamilton.” Keeping Prince in mind he (with Hoggett’s help) starts updating several well known set pieces from the show. Let’s say, they’re “refreshed” so happily that the audience — at least night– cheered during several scenes including the opening of Act 2, the quest to rescue Johanna from Fogg’s mad house, and entire final sequence of events, which I would liken to side 2 of “Abbey Road.” From the time Sweeney loses it and kills his worst victim til the end, there isn’t a dry eye in the house. Kail has really made “Sweeney Todd” very moving as the dark story unravels toward its tragic ending.

I know this show as well as I know the way home. I was there three times in 1979, and I’ve seen all of the revivals, the bakery show, the one at the NY State Opera, and so on. (Forget the movie.) I’ve listened to this soundtrack a thousand times. And yet, there’s always something new. Kail really concentrated on the comedy for Ashford’s sake, and she steals the show with pratfalls and mannerisms that seem organic. Groban’s voice (like Lewis’s) is a whole character itself, and he receives a huge ovation in Act 1 for good reason. (The 26 piece orchestra is beyond compare– or criticism.) Special mention to Matarazzo, charged with singing “Not While I’m Around,” one of the great Sondheim songs of all time. His “Stranger Things” castmates will be agog. (One of them was there last night, red-haired Sadie Sink.)

So wow– won’t “Into the Woods” also be in Best Revival of a Musical this year? Two Sondheim shows! How could we be so lucky?

And just for fun, who else was in the audience but Christine Baranski, Jimmy Fallon, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tony winner Sutton Foster, director J.J. Abrams, Richard Kind, producer Daryl Roth, not to mention Kail’s Oscar nominated (four times!) wife Michelle Williams, her BFF Busy Phillips, three time Tony nominee Linda Emond, plus Tony Kushner, Tom Corson (head of Warner Bros. Records– he gets this soundtrack), Hamilton star Christopher Jackson.

Producer Jeffrey Seller took the stage after the curtain calls to introduce everyone who worked on this production — not just the cast, but the crew, the standby’s, the make up and hair people, costumers, etc. It was a pretty cool gesture, followed by Kail getting to take a bow and thank everyone.

The Tony’s are on June 11th. You’ll be seeing a lot of this crowd then!

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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