Monday, October 6, 2014

Live from Lincoln Center: Sweeney Todd in Concert

 Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfelin in the New York Philharmonic's Sweeney Todd

At the end of September the PBS series Live from Lincoln Center telecast a concert production of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. There has been no lack of Sweeney Todds. John Doyle’s brilliant 2005 Broadway revival, with Michael Cerveris as the homicidal barber and Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett, his partner in crime – who bakes the victims of his throat-cutting into meat pies – sharpened the musical’s Brechtian chops, reimagining it as a leaner, less lavish show, with the actors doubling wittily as musicians. Since the TV transcription of Harold Prince’s original version, which opened in 1979, is still available on DVD, aficionados were at liberty to compare them, and see how LuPone’s performance matched up to Angela Lansbury’s. (LuPone did superlative work in the role, but you missed Lansbury’s music-hall humor, especially in her socko first number, “The Worst Pies in London.”) Tim Burton’s 2007 movie was a misstep. He wasn’t right for the material, which is way more gruesome than his pictures normally get, and the leading actors, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, both non-singers, had all they can do just to hit the notes

The latest Sweeney is in collaboration with the New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert serving as musical director and conductor – and the director, Lonny Price, has had great success with several previous concert stagings, including two other Sondheims, Company and Passion. His wry, ebullient mounting of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide was a revelation. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen that musical work; Price and his cast aired out the Broadway-blockbuster dust and made the wit in the lyrics (contributed by, among others, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman and John Latouche) truly glitter. And you recognize that card Lonny Price in the opening moments of Sweeney Todd. The ensemble, led by the Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson, promenade up to the podia in formal dress, elegantly bound scripts under their arms, to the eager applause of the Lincoln Center audience, but as soon as the dissonant opening chords of the overture sound, they cut loose, knocking over pedestals of flowers, sending their scripts scattering to the stage floor, and even upending a piano. Thompson rips the collar of her red dress; Terfel shifts (out of camera range, so you don’t see how he pulls it off) into a black wife-beater and ankle-length black leather coat.

Christian Borle with Bryn Terfel. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

I loved this jocular punk opening, but in toto I can’t say I cared much for this Sweeney Todd, which is frantic and wearying, with the plentiful chorus whipping around the stage, overacting heartily. Terfel sings the title role magnificently; you expect no less. And for a while his broad, expressive face, framed by a thick, high coiffe that dissipates in rock ‘n’ roll strands at his neck, gives him so much heft on stage that he has a built-in Brechtian presence. But he scowls and sneers too much, and for all her game, Cockney hijinks Thompson lacks spontaneity. Her singing is unfortunate: she keeps plunging into a forced cellar alto and you can hear her searching around in there for the right note. Both musically and dramatically, Thompson and Terfel’s interaction lacks true playfulness, except on “A Little Priest,” the first-act finale.

The effort at vaudevillian jolliness does in several of the principals. As the ingĂ©nue, Johanna, Erin Mackey sings prettily and looks uncomfortable. Jeff Blumenkrantz – memorable as Dr. Pangloss in Candide – plays the Beadle as if he stepped out of a road company of Guys and Dolls, though with a (bad) Cockney accent. Audra McDonald, as the Beggar Woman, mugs embarrassingly. (Who came up with that baffling bit of casting?) Playing the Judge, the ultimate object of Todd’s revenge, Philip Quast doesn’t show much personality, but when he and Terfel duet on the incomparably beautiful “Pretty Women,” you’re grateful for his supple voice. I liked Jay Armstrong Johnson, currently cast in the Broadway transfer of Barrington Stage’s On the Town, as the sailor Anthony, the juvenile part – the one that first brought Victor Garber to the attention of New York audiences – and Kyle Brean as Toby, especially on “Not While I’m Around,” which he sings with brio. And there isn’t nearly enough of Christian Borle as that opera buffa faker Pirelli. Pirelli is the first one to fall under Sweeney’s knife, when he attempts to blackmail him at the end of act one, and you miss him dearly in act two.

It’s clever of Price to use a trombone as Mrs. Lovett’s meat grinder, and there are a handful of other amusing staging touches. But of the concert productions he’s overseen, this is the one that just doesn’t work.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie

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