"Another Sweeney Todd?" was the response by many when the 2014 Philharmonic concert presentation of the popular musical was announced.
Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's musical of a murderous barber obsessed with revenge has been performed numerous times, both on and Off-Broadway and in concert; its latest incarnation will take place in the form of a prog-metal production in Washington, D.C., this summer. But this concert, presented with the New York Philharmonic, offered one unique aspect in advance: the casting of film star Emma Thompson, making her New York stage debut, as piemaker and partner-in-crime Mrs. Lovett.
The concert, which opened March 5 at Avery Fisher Hall, with Lonny Price at the helm, offered more than just Thompson in terms of originality (although, rest assured, she is uniquely delightful).
The evening began with the cast filing onstage, and each of the primary cast members, dressed in tuxedos and formal gowns, solemnly singing "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." After a few moments of appropriately ominous atmosphere, the singers began tossing down their binders. Chaos then ensued, along with the lyrics, "Swing your razor high, Sweeney," as the performers ripped off pieces of their costumes, overturned vases of flowers and even upended the large piano sitting centerstage, while a backdrop of splattered paint, resembling graffiti, with a large red handprint, appeared. The effect was unsettling, to say the least, and an inventive way to introduce a show where rage and chaos destroy beauty and order. It was clear this wasn't going to be a typical night at the Philharmonic.
Opera star Bryn Terfel played the title role with assurance. He was clearly comfortable in the part, having performed it previously in London, and gave a solemn weight to Sweeney's tragedy and obsession with revenge, and his powerful voice beautifully delivered his love letter to his knives, "My Friends." Terfel portrayed his character's inability to respond to human kindness powerfully in the opening scene with the young and kind-hearted sailor Anthony. The opera star was slated to star in Sweeney Todd with the Philharmonic in 2000 but had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons; one is glad he had another chance to take on the role.
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
As Sweeney's criminal collaborator, Thompson proved herself more than capable of the task, bringing some real and welcome humanity to the role of Mrs. Lovett. Her singing voice is clear and strong, and she is a powerful comedic force onstage, earning laughs at unexpected moments thanks to her subtle and well-timed choices. There were moments where she sounded off-key, but it suited the character so well that one wondered if they were deliberate choices. Thompson was clearly enjoying herself onstage, interacting with the orchestra and conductor (even going as far as to steal his baton). During the Act Two opener, "God, That's Good!," she entered by strolling down the aisle, interacting with audience members and even pilfering a fur wrap from one to wear onstage. She and Terfel share a strong chemistry, and their duet on "A Little Priest" is one of the evening's highlights.
Thompson wasn't the only comedian in the house; following his triumphant performance in Little Me at City Center, Tony winner Christian Borle sank his teeth into the role of Pirelli, complete with a swirling cape and an outlandish accent. His performance was delightful; one only wishes he spent more time onstage.
Erin Mackey sang the role of Johanna beautifully, and she and Jay Armstrong Johnson share a sweet chemistry as the young lovers in peril, especially during the rapid-fire song "Kiss Me." As Johanna's lecherous adoptive father Judge Turpin, Philip Quast gave an assured performance, harmonizing beautifully with Terfel in "Pretty Women." Playing the Judge's friend The Beadle, Jeff Blumenkrantz brought his scene-stealing comedic skills that were on display in Murder for Two to a slightly bigger stage.
In a surprise casting, Tony winner Audra McDonald performed the role of the Beggar Woman (the program merely listed the actor as "?"), giving an impassioned and moving performance.
Conducted by Alan Gilbert, the orchestra sounded excellent, especially during the more chaotic moments like the second-act "City on Fire." Efficiently staged (signs informed audience members the location of each scene), the concert moved at a quick pace and never felt like the three hours it clocked in at.
Sweeney Todd runs through March 8; theatregoers should certainly "attend the tale" if they can.