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Petit Guignol: “Sweeney Todd” reviewed

Thomas Kail’s new production of Sweeney Todd isn’t so much a masterpiece revived as it is recycled. Currently playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Stephen Sondheim and High Wheeler’s baroque tale of Todd (Josh Groban, singing well but not hitting hard), a barber in Victorian London who returns home after serving a fifteen-year sentence for a crime he did not commit, digs in to the material with relish. Upon his return, his old neighbor Mrs. Lovett (Annaleigh Ashford), a meat-pie proprietor, tells him that his wife has since died and his young daughter a ward of the same judge (Jamie Jackson) who sent him away years ago. Todd vows revenge on all, and sets up shop a floor above Lovett’s shop, slashing throats and finding a novel way to dispose of the evidence (not to spoil anything, but you are what you eat).

What works best is what worked first: after several small-scale productions, including an immersive one in the West Village and John Doyle’s game-changing 2005 revival, this Todd has been restored to a full orchestra, all the better to take Jonathan Tunick’s gorgeous orchestrations in with.

But in many ways, Kail tips the scale away from the macabre toward the madcap. The show is supposed to be incisive, its sinister laced with humor, but it must remain subtle. Todd goes a bridge too far and panders broadly, amplifying easy targets like making Ashford’s Mrs. Lovett overtly sexual instead of, ahem, fleshing out the less developed characters like Johanna (Maria Bilbao) and Anthony (Jordan Fisher), who find love in a seemingly heartless place, or Tobias (a heroic Gaten Matarazzo), whose attachment to Mrs. Lovett seems to emerge from nowhere.

The notion that Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd are enjoying a sexual relationship isn’t new, but in leaning into it, Kail’s production shifts the focus away from its baroque origins. Todd must be inscrutable in his bloodthirsty quest for vengeance, but Groban plays him more aloof than malevolent; similarly, Ashford pivots Mrs. Lovett from mercenary calculating psychopath to hot-blooded vamp. The notion of the cyclical destructive nature of revenge gets obscured. What’s the point of having a Greek chorus if there is no longer a moral for them to comment and warn about?

Attend the tale to absorb this Todd in all its dark rapture, but be forewarned: this production feels like we’re watching people who’ve seen Sweeney Todd put on Sweeney Todd.