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Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street At Lunt Fontanne, 2pm, wednesday April 26th, 2023 Reviewed

I am a huge George C Scott fan but had never seen him on stage, so when I heard he was starring in “Inherit The Wind” on Broadway 1996 I jumped on it. And he was a no show, Tony Randall, a producer of the production, came on stage to apologies and played his role. I loved Tony for “The Odd Couple” if nothing else but he was completely wrong for the role. At the Wednesday matinee of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street At Lunt Fontanne a sort of reversal occurred. The popstar baritone Josh Groban was a no show but his substitute was PROBABLY a better fit for the role. The standby for Sweeney Todd, a veteran Nicholas Christopher, was excellent. With a thankless task, by the end of his performance you wondered how Josh can fill his boots.

The “Sweeney Todd” revival opened on Broadway in late March and I have even read some negative reviews. There is nothing to be negative about. Inspired by the 1900s paperback novels, known as penny dreadfuls, and yet with some of Rossini’s “The Barber Of Seville”, the title role requires menace or heft as well as a powerful voice. Josh has one of these. His singing range (low end tenor, high end baritone) is perfect for the role, but he is like Wart in “Camelot”, although 42 years of age Josh remains a twink. If you’ve seen Tim Burton’s cinematic version, you might disagree that Sweeney needs heft since Johnny Depp’s melancholic and deeply disturbed take was spot on but it needs something. The original production had a Tony Award winning Sweeney Len Cariou in 1979. Josh, well, I will have to go back and try and catch him. For now Nicholas is great.

Sweeney is a barber who was framed by a London Judge who wanted his wife and accepted his daughter. Sweeney was sent to Australia and when he returned fifteen years later his wife was dead and his daughter held captive by the Judge who planned to marry her. Sweeney, who never gave up and never gives in, went in search of revenge with the help of Mrs. Lovett who owned the pie shop below the barber’s shop and between the two of them they wrecked havoc in London town.

Mrs. Lovett has always been a huge role and the first one was Angela Lansbury, Patti Lupone also took a shot at it in 2006, but Tony winner Annaleigh Ashford gives a bravado, comic goth opera performance that has Broadway buzzing. I saw her six years ago at the Hudson in another Sondheim masterpiece “Sunday In The Park With George” and she was excellent (here), but today it feels like a dry run for her over the top, magnificently scary and funny and heartbreaking murderous Mrs. Lovett. A story of love as violent stand by your man.

The orchestra is 26 person strong and a booming thing that I heard was drowning out some of the singing though not when I saw it and I had a nosebleed seat. The staging is incredible, it seems to come at you out of the fog and under the bridge and is thrilling, just like the music: it is grand opera(tta), a big stage filled very well. It is all drearness and beauty, “Attend The Story Of Sweeney Todd” is like a choir from hell and “No Place Like London” with its devastating and much quoted lyrics is lyricism at its best:

“There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit
And the vermin of the world inhabit it
And it’s morals aren’t worth what a pig can spit
And it goes by the name of London”

It was around about now the audience breathed out, Nicholas Christopher could handle the role.

Mario Bilbao was a distracted and fascinating Johanna in a star making appearance and Stranger Things’ Gaten Matarazzo proves he will have a fine career. Thomas Kail directed “Hamilton” (literally across the street) and he excels again in this staging, one part comedy to two parts Grand Guignol.

Here is a snapshot of Sondheim graded (just the ones I’ve seen):

1957 – West Side Story – A
1959 – Gypsy – A
1962 – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – A
1970 – Company – A+
1971 – Follies – A-
1973 – A Little Night Music – A-
1979 – Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street- A+
1984 – Sunday in the Park with George – A
1987- Into the Woods – A
1990 Assassins – A-
1994 – Passion – A

You need to see this, it is a Broadway FAMO, the entire production but especially Annaleigh Ashford are roles you’ll want to see and also tell people you have seen. This is pop operetta as high art, dirty grubby horror as a highlight on corruption and death (and insanity). One of the greatest moments in Broadway history is the “Pretty Women” pas de deux for a slit throat. What better way to celebrate Spring in 2023.

Grade: A+

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