If there were any doubts that Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is a musical masterpiece, they were dispelled by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Alan Gilbert, and the remarkable cast assembled for this concert staging. The Welsh opera star Bryn Terfel sang the title role as well as it could possibly be sung. His Mrs. Lovett, Emma Thompson, sang surprisingly well and displayed great comic timing and physical humor. I say “surprisingly” because the British actress and writer’s impressive biography lists no musical credits.
Thompson’s singing ability wasn’t the evening’s only surprise. In the program there was a question mark next to the character Beggar Woman. The mystery actress turned out to be Audra McDonald. You know it’s a special occasion when a five-time Tony winner takes a supporting role. And Christian Borle, fresh from his multi-character performance in the Encores! production of Little Me, was an excellent choice to play the pseudo-Italian barber Pirelli. Philip Quast, a three-time Olivier winner whom I’d never seen before, was an ideal Judge Turpin. He and Terfel complemented each other beautifully during “Pretty Women.” As the young sailor Anthony, Jay Armstrong Johnson (Hands on a Hardbody) delivered a lovely rendition of “Johanna,” one of the prettiest songs in any musical. His fine performance should land him more leading roles on Broadway. As his love interest Johanna, Erin Mackey (Chaplin: The Musical) truly sounded like a songbird during “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.” Jeff Blumenkrantz (Murder for Two) was aptly snaky as Beadle, and Kyle Brenn, a tenth-grader from Norwalk, Conn., was remarkably poised as Tobias.
It may be a cliché, but the combination of Sondheim’s brilliant score, Gilbert’s impassioned conducting of his top-tier orchestra, a 30-member chorus and Terfel’s powerful bass-baritone frequently sent chills down the spine. The six-foot-four Terfel cuts an imposing figure and has acting talent as well as a magnificent voice. Sweeney Todd has been performed in opera houses as well as in theaters. Whether one considers it an opera or a musical comedy doesn’t really matter. In either case the music is thrilling, and it has never sounded better than it did at Lincoln Center.
Director Lonny Price has become an expert stager of concert productions. He directed the Philharmonic’s 2011 production of Company and won an Emmy for the 2001 San Francisco Symphony’s Sweeney Todd. Here he had his cast members enter with scripts in hand, use them briefly and then dramatically throw them on the floor. A little later there was an even more dramatic – and surprising – moment when a few cast members flipped over a piano to create a platform. Price occasionally put his actors in the aisles and a balcony. It was always effective, particularly when Terfel sang of his need for vengeance while approaching audience members in the front rows. There wasn’t much of a set. In the first act there wasn’t even a barber chair; one appeared in the second act during a song that mentioned it. Alan Adelman’s lighting was striking, with flashes of bright red every time Sweeney slashed the throat of a victim.
The March 5 opening night had the feel of a major event. Sondheim was in the audience, and after the cast took their bows Gilbert, Terfel and Thompson went up the aisle to bring the composer on stage. The reception was even more rapturous. Also in the audience were two of the finest interpreters of Sondheim’s music, Barbara Cook and Bernadette Peters. Other celebrities included Meryl Streep, fresh from the Oscars.
For those unable to see one of the five performances, PBS has announced that it will air a telecast on Live from Lincoln Center. The dates haven’t been announced, but the host will be that old Beggar Woman with the haunting soprano, Audra McDonald.