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The New York Philharmonic's 'Sweeney Todd' Truly Earns Its Standing Ovations

The New York Philharmonic's resurrection of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, starring Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson, proves to be one of the most delightfully wicked evenings of theater in recent memory.


New York Philharmonic's 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a Musical Thriller'

City: New York City, New York
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center
Date: 2014-03-05

The celebrated musical thriller Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, has once again been resurrected for the stage, this time in a concert version playing a limited run at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. Flawlessly cast and cleverly directed by Lonny Price, the musical thriller’s latest incarnation exceeded all expectations and then some.

It was such an unparalleled gift to hear the New York Philharmonic deliver Sondheim's sumptuous score, instead of a small chamber orchestra. Under the sensitive baton of conductor Alan Gilbert, they played with admirable aplomb throughout the night, thankfully casting aside memories of John Doyle’s 2005 production with Michael Cerveris and Patti Lupone, where the talented actors also doubled as the musicians. While an ingenious idea on paper, the Doyle production proved to be rather distracting in execution. Price should be commended for returning the intricate instrumental music to the orchestra and the drama to the actors on stage.

Bryn Terfel's turn as the murderous, vengeful Sweeney was truly exquisite. Known as of late for his Wagnerian roles, the famed operatic bass-baritone delivered some of the most magnificent singing of his entire career, and never once seemed out of place in a role that hasn’t always heard musicianship of this caliber. His dynamic range is still second to none, with pianissimos most singers would kill for. Pun intended. The unhinged rage he channelled at the end of Act I was electrifying and elicited thunderous applause throughout the celebrity-packed house. Together, Terfel & Philip Quast’s eerily disturbing Judge Turpin were a baritone admirer's casting wet dream.  

The hilarious Emma Thompson was delightfully wicked as Mrs. Lovett, her quirky comic timing only reinforcing her status as one of the stage and screen’s most emotionally intelligent actresses. She devoured the stage, but in a way that thoroughly complimented her gruesome partner in crime, never overshadowing his presence. While her initial vocal entrances seemed apprehensive, within minutes she instantly embodied the role with a nefarious zealousness that rivaled many of her predecessors. The chemistry between Terfel and Thompson was so deliciously palpable that their portrayals might possibly be mentioned one day in the same category as role originators Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury.

Christian Borle’s deceptively daffy Pirelli had the audience in stitches, even though his portrayal occasionally felt a bit foppish. Erin Mackey's Johanna was perfectly serviceable, if not particularly memorable; nevertheless, her "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" proved to be quite a lovely moment in the musical’s first half.

The real highlight of the evening though was Jay Armstrong Johnson as the young sailor Anthony Hope. I don't believe the New York stage has ever heard a more beautiful "Johanna", and I dare say his rendition even surpasses that of the original Anthony, Victor Garber. A Broadway star was born tonight. That voice is simply gorgeous and Johnson’s presence on the stage was such that you couldn't take your eyes away from him.  

The massive chorus was impressive, if not a tad overwhelming. During the opening pie shop scene of Act II, there were so many patrons clamoring for one of Mrs. Lovett’s meaty pies that it bordered on the absurd. It did, however, bring to light what was so sorely missing from the 2007 Tim Burton adaptation. Take away Sondheim’s powerful choruses and one loses the sinister essence of the entire piece. Well, at least one also has to hire actors who can sing the composer’s demanding music without appearing completely out of their league.

The evening began as if the performers would be delivering their lines and melodies from behind music stands. Once Terfel threw down his score, any presumption that the whole presentation would be a staid, stodgy affair was instantly dispelled. The piano was overturned and the distant backdrop became a brightly colored graffitied wall, throwing expectations out the window.

It was a night of other surprises, as well. Composer Stephen Sondheim took the stage during the curtain call and an unlisted Audra McDonald delivered a stellar Beggar Woman. That voice is always so spectacular, one almost forgest how fantastic an actress she is, as well.

Broadway audiences are often overly generous with their praise, giving standing ovations for unworthy performances, but in the case of this version of Sweeney Todd, the rapturous applause was appropriately fitting. I'm to assume all the remaining shows are sold out, but if there's a chance to snag a ticket or two, you'll not enjoy a more incredible evening of theater in New York City, than what was displayed in all it's bloody glory at Avery Fisher Hall.  

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