“Sweeney Todd” is subtitled “A Musical Thriller” — which perfectly describes Jonathan Kent’s electrifying new production. With the dynamite pairing of Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton leading an acting company of 26 and a band of 15, this staging is anything but cautious. But instead of immensity, this incarnation has scalding intensity. It’s truly scary even when you know what’s coming, not to mention wildly funny, and no previous London production has so triumphantly expressed the full emotional range of Sondheim’s gory glory.
The trouble with Hal Prince’s revered original production was that it enshrined cliches about the show, not least its austere Victorian factory setting. Designer Anthony Ward jettisons that. There’s still an industrial feel to his tall, curved metal set with vertiginous walkways dotted with watchful chorus members, but we’re now in the 1930s. Out go hats and frock coats appropriate to a 19th century setting and in come costumes that feel more recognizable, more immediate.
Kent and movement director Denni Sayers seize on that shift to create a mood for the ensemble that’s miles away from sententious. Instead of hectoring us to “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,” Kent’s chorus members share the story among themselves in an almost raised-eyebrow way that is considerably more inviting.
Audiences are grabbed by the scruff of the neck and never let go thanks to Ward’s fluid set, the animated staging and Mark Henderson’s lighting. Shifting from shafts of light piercing the haze of smoggy London streets to the sour bright intimacy of Mrs. Lovett’s parlor to the stark shiver of the ghastly bakehouse, Henderson expertly controls and drives the transitions so tension never flags.
The other riveting element is the combination of Paul Groothuis’s state-of-the-art sound design and Nicholas Skilbeck’s band. From the percussion to the eerie strings, every instrument is ideally balanced in support of the text, which is, for once, excitingly audible. As a result, audiences never have to work from a generalized idea of what is being communicated in a show in which more than 80% is sung.
Not that there is one generalized moment in the lead performances.
Michael Ball has turned what was a vocally powerful but effortfully chilly performance at the production’s premiere at Chichester Festival Theater last summer into a relaxed, fully fledged horror. Beneath neat, slicked-down hair, his face and emotions are bleached out. With his feelings largely suppressed, the threat of their release makes Sweeney infinitely more frightening. As a result, his “Epiphany” absolutely lives up to the song’s title. Robbed of the chance to murder the judge (plausibly horrible John Bowe), Sweeney’s lust for revenge simply explodes.
In a masterstroke, Kent doesn’t stop the scene for Sweeney’s musical and sexual climax. Instead, Imelda Staunton’s Mrs. Lovett, curling herself against him, breathes in the sexual heat pouring off him and, terrified and thrilled by his violence, whispers right into his ear in an attempt to bring him back down to practicalities.
Staunton, rarely seen as a musical theater performer but an Oliver winner as the Baker’s Wife in London’s original “Into the Woods,” dazzles as an erotically charged Mrs. Lovett. Looking like a creepily overgrown schoolgirl, Staunton makes Mrs. Lovett into more of a psychopath than any previous interpreter while winning every drop of the audience’s sympathy with razor-sharp wit.
The actress has an astonishing ability to separate out each individual beat of the text and score and thus make her every shifting thought legible. Her glimpse of compassion, instantly quashed, when she realizes she’ll have to kill Toby (a touchingly scrawny James McConnell) is genuinely frightening.
Peter Polycarpou beautifully turns the Beadle from an also-ran into an oily hymn to self-aggrandizement. But even he and Skilbeck’s apt tempo throughout cannot save the show’s first-act quartet, which is weakened by Luke Brady’s Anthony, who looks ardent but lacks vocal power.
By contrast, Staunton and Ball’s combination of musical and dramatic authority allow the grisly climax to be almost heartbreakingly sad. At the denouement, realizing that she’s fighting for her life, her sung cry “I loved you” is piercing.
For a brief moment, she — and we — think she’s won. The end, when it comes, is as distressing as it is shocking. Moments later, the final upward phrase rips through the orchestra, and the audience experiences not just catharsis but a visceral understanding of why “Sweeney” remains Sondheim’s masterpiece.