Sweeney Todd: Theater Review

Chris Lee
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel in "Sweeney Todd"
If this is a test drive for Emma Thompson to tackle a Broadway musical role, bring it on.

Emma Thompson shares top billing with opera star Bryn Terfel in the New York Philharmonic's semi-staged concert of the Stephen Sondheim musical, which is being filmed to air on PBS' "Live From Lincoln Center" series.

NEW YORK – Emma Thompson making her New York stage debut as amoral London pie shop owner Mrs. Lovett is the major draw, and she doesn't disappoint. But the real strength of this five-performance concert staging of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is hearing Stephen Sondheim's magnificent score played by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Alan Gilbert. If director Lonny Price's concept lacks coherence and the ensemble could be more unified, leaving room for improvement before the show is filmed for future PBS broadcast this weekend, the exhilarating moments trump the weaknesses.

The big question, of course, is can Thompson sing – and not just any role but one of the female titans of musical theater, immortalized by Angela Lansbury in the original 1979 Broadway production of Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler's masterwork. The answer is most definitely yes. Thompson’s last musical role was in a 1985 London revival of Me and My Girl, before her film career had taken off. And while her voice may not be as supple when shifting registers as more seasoned singers, she carries a tune with gusto. More importantly for this particular role, Thompson’s comic timing makes her Mrs. Lovett a murderous delight, whether squishing roaches on her pie shop floor or steering hapless barber shop patrons to have their throats slit upstairs at the "tonsorial parlor" of her beloved Mr. Todd.

The title character is impeccably sung, if a little stiffly embodied, by Welsh operatic bass-baritone Bryn Terfel. An escaped convict shipped from 19th century London to penal-colony Australia on inflated charges, he is now hell-bent on revenge against his jailer, the nefarious Judge Turpin (Philip Quast), who is guardian to Sweeney's teenage daughter Johanna (Erin Mackey). Sweeney meets a willing accomplice in the common-as-muck, widowed Mrs. Lovett, who remembers him fondly from the old days. Her waste-not-want-not credo finds a use for his victims' flesh, as filling for her meat pies.

Even in the age of The Book of Mormon, when seemingly nothing is off-limits as subject matter, Sondheim and Wheeler's audaciousness in turning this Grand Guignol horror show into musical theater remains dazzling. The balance of acid-drenched comedy with subversive class warfare, gore and glowering drama puts Sweeney Todd in a league of its own. And irrespective of the merits or shortcomings of the 2007 Tim Burton film, it still works best on a stage, whether presented as opera or musical theater.

Terfel nails the hulking presence and brooding scowl of Sweeney, but his acting doesn’t have the depth to convey this wronged man’s corrosive sense of injustice, of being hollowed out and refilled with hate. There’s menace in his performance but a shortage of pathos. However, for most audiences that will be a small trade-off when Terfel’s mellifluous voice swells from tortured introspection to thunderous rage in the character’s first-act "Epiphany," or lingers with broken tenderness over "Johanna" in the second act.

Concert events of this type tend to be under-rehearsed, and if Terfel and Thompson's chemistry isn’t all it could be on their rollicking duet, "A Little Priest," another performance or two under their belts should fix that. Thompson does the comedic heavy lifting in that song, one of the wittiest compositions in the Sondheim canon. She’s also a riot in the chatty second-act opener, "God, That’s Good," when the change in her recipe has made her struggling pie shop a sudden sensation. Having her swipe a fox fur stole from an audience member was a nice touch. Likewise the role reversal of Mrs. Lovett becoming the barber, giving Sweeney a trim as she daydreams about a sweeter future for them as a couple in "By the Sea." There are touching hints of innocence and optimism beneath her shrewd manner. When she begs Mr. Todd to forget about the Judge, saying, "We've got a nice respectable business 'ere," she almost seems to believe it.

Of the remaining cast, Mackey and Jay Armstrong Johnson are fresh-faced and appealing as the young sweethearts; Quast is memorable as the self-flagellating authoritarian Judge, wrestling with desire; Christian Borle (Smash) out-hams Thompson as the blackmailing rival barber Pirelli; Jeff Blumenkrantz is a weedy Beadle as opposed to the usual overbearing thug; and young Kyle Brenn as the urchin Toby makes his "Not While I’m Around" the show’s most affecting moment.

In a surprise casting coup, Broadway royalty Audra McDonald appears unbilled, lending her formidable pipes to the small but crucial part of the Beggar Woman. However, given that McDonald has signed on to host the PBS Live From Lincoln Center broadcast, that role will be performed by Bryonha Marie Parham (After Midnight, Porgy and Bess) at the Saturday performances being filmed. (The show will air at a future date to be announced.)

Price's most inventive flourish happens in the opening minutes, when the ensemble files out in formal wear to the ominous notes of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," suggesting that we're in for a staid recital. Following a sinister exchange of glances, Terfel tosses aside his script, followed by Thompson. Urns full of flowers and even a prop grand piano are overturned, while a graffiti-strewn rear curtain is revealed and the actors tear away parts of their costumes, transforming the look into distressed steampunk. But beyond that, the directorial concept feels thin. The bloody handprint motif that accompanies each murder, in particular, is a lame idea executed poorly, and considering the effectiveness of the barber's chair and death whistle in previous productions, the substitutes here are underwhelming. The posters meant to designate a change of scene were also problematic on opening night, since nobody seemed to have worked out the adhesive kinks.

We might be stuck with those directorial choices at this point, though one can at least hope for further finetuning of the choral sections, notably in Act II, when the multipart vocal arrangements are at their most complex. But nitpicking aside, in these days of downsized Broadway bands, this is a rare opportunity to hear a truly great musical theater score performed by a full orchestra. And getting to see Thompson dish out cannibal savories with such relish is a treat too good to pass up.

Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York (runs through March 8)

Cast: Emma Thompson, Bryn Terfel, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Christian Borle, Kyle Brenn, Erin Mackey, Philip Quast, Audra McDonald

Director: Lonny Price

Music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim

Book: Hugh Wheeler, from an adaptation by Christopher Bond

Set designer: James Noone

Lighting designer: Alan Adelman

Costume designer: Tracy Christensen

Sound designer: Peter Fitzgerald

Choreographer: Josh Rhodes

Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick

Conductor: Alan Gilbert

Presented by New York Philharmonic