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New York Philharmonic's 'Sweeney Todd' Shines
Pia Catton | The Wall Street Journal | 6 March 2014

As conductor and music director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert has one of the best, most rarefied jobs in Manhattan. And on Wednesday night, after the Philharmonic's concert version of Stephen Sondheim's " Sweeney Todd, " he proved he's having more fun than the rest of us.

The production at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall featured Oscar winner Emma Thompson, who was outrageously entertaining as Mrs. Lovett, opposite bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, the huge and hugely popular opera singer who has a talent for Broadway crossover. As these singers and their co-stars, including Audra McDonald as the Beggar Woman and Christian Borle as Pirelli, took their bows with the orchestra, the house exploded with applause. And Mr. Gilbert made his move.

Looking out into the crowd, he spied Mr. Sondheim, then turning to Ms. Thompson, he whispered in her ear: "I'm going to go get him; do you want to come along?"

The two beamed as they ran off the stage and up the aisle (mowing down early departers clogging the path) to Mr. Sondheim, who they embraced and whisked to the stage. His presence sent the crowd into an arena-style frenzy.

"You could feel this groundswell of energy," said Mr. Gilbert. "People wanted to show him the love."

The gesture fit the exuberance of the evening, which started out on a note of surprise. The performers all filed out from backstage wearing formal attire, as is customary for concerts. Within minutes, Mr. Terfel held aloft his sheet music folder and from his great height, dramatically dropped it to the ground. The other singers followed suit, and mayhem ensued—vases of flowers went crashing to the floor, a piano was upended and evening gowns were ripped into gritty costumes. Graffiti, posters and lighting suddenly emerged, making the vision of the production's director, Lonny Price, come to life.

Along the way, every time the demon barber of Fleet Street executed one of his customers, an air horn blasted. And though it appeared that from the podium, Mr. Gilbert was responsible for at least one of the blasts, he confessed to an illusion.

"I hold it up and someone watches me," he said, explaining the sound department presses a button.

During intermission, actor and director Bob Balaban rattled off at least four "Sweeney Todd" productions that he has seen. His first was when Mr. Sondheim sang it himself at the home of producer and director Hal Prince more than 35 years ago: "We all fell apart."

Seeing it with the Philharmonic made him love it even more because "you can hear it so clearly," he said.

Guests of the gala evening, including Bernadette Peters and Neil Patrick Harris, sat down to dinner in the upstairs lobby after the show. Tables were topped with bouquets of roses with layers of latticed pie crusts and the occasional fake finger poking out.

For the performers, who joined the festivities later, the evening created a few life moments.

"It's a dream come true," said 16-year old Kyle Brenn, who played Tobias Ragg, the street boy who befriends Mrs. Lovett. At one point, he rests his head in the lap of Ms. Thompson.

"I was burrowing," said Mr. Brenn a high school sophomore in Norwalk, Conn., shrugging off any awkwardness as all part of acting.

Mr. Borle, a Tony-winning actor and everyone's favorite comic villain, was daunted by the challenge of portraying Pirelli. "I didn't think I could do this part," he said. "I'm a high baritone. This is a serious tenor role. But I'm acting through it."

Three-time Olivier Award winner Philip Quast came in from Australia to play Judge Turpin, in what was his New York debut.

Jay Armstrong Johnson, a Broadway up-and-comer who played the role of Anthony Hope, said performing with the full sound and power of the New York Philharmonic is unlike anything he had experienced onstage: "It lifts you."