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A Delicious Sweeney Todd at Lincoln Center
Marti Sichel | Woman Around Town | 7 March 2014

They seemed regal when they took the stage. The ensemble entered in appropriately dark and somber clothing suitable to blending into the background—strong men and pretty women all. The men all looked smart in their tuxedos. The women with named characters seemed to glide across the floor in their dreamy, fluttery, lacy floor-length gowns. And they were beautiful. The Philharmonic musicians tuned. Conductor Alan Gilbert looked at ease taking his position. The grand piano stood central—the short vase of mixed pink roses sitting prettily on its lid complementing the large floral displays at either end of the stage. As the Prelude's opening notes began and the sound swelled, the refined audience's excitement showed itself in appropriately loud but polite applause.

And then it happened.

It started with bass-baritone Bryn Terfel. The imposing figure looked at his open binder—the concert performer's libretto. He smoothly closed its cover. He lifted it from its stand, stepping forward and raising it to shoulder height. He looked to the audience, a hint of challenge on his otherwise stony visage. And then, like a boss, he let it drop...THWAP! ...to the floor.

Emma Thompson, looking perfectly quaffed and cool in her fiery red gown, glanced with nonchalance to her costar. Cocking an eyebrow and pursing her lips ever so slightly, she didn't even look at her libretto before sliding it hard off its stand, the binder landing hard, pages splayed open and crumpled on the dark floor.

Like two primed charges, Bryn and Emma's actions set off a chain reaction, a current of mayhem shooting across throughout the entire stage. And then, all of a sudden...pandemonium.

Flowers flung from their perches hitting the ground with a clatter. Stands toppled. Libretti thrown, quite literally, to the wind. Bowties pulled from necks. Sleeves from dresses. There was formalwear flying everywhere. You should have seen what they did to that poor piano! I got chills.

But when they opened their mouths in song, this motley collection of wild-looking choristers, that's when the real chills began. Stephen Sondheim's Ballad of Sweeney Todd is a searing composition, the full force of which can't be captured on a movie screen.

These first few minutes gave a wonderful taste of what kind of production this would be—not a stodgy staged recital with a line of singers all in a neat little row, but a wild, energy-filled production full of great gags and bloody horrors (and sometimes those are the same things).

The orchestra was encircled by ramps and platforms leading from the lower main stage's wings to a central platform about six feet high. That platform led to another central ramp that went another six feet or so in the air and ended at the higher level where the ensemble would have sat if this was any normal production. (Instead, they got to run around, as equally punked out in their torn-apart attire as the main cast, and have about as much fun as one can have in a chorus.)

The backdrop-free back wall looked like brick scrawled all over with graffiti, tagged and slapped with a giant bloody handprint. That last feature is put to great use, glowing bright at just the right moments throughout the night. Where there was a lack of scenery, the director, Lonny Price, made up for it with a few clever props (and Thompson could be seen, erm, appropriating bits and pieces of whatever caught her eye from whomever happened to be between her and her mark). The famous chair was a bit lacking, but considering I didn't expect one at all, I'm not complaining.

And then there was the cast. I have already mentioned the powerful Welsh opera singer Brym Terfel, who was excellent in the role—a great mixture of really dark, really brooding and really big. Some might even say formidable. I also mentioned the wonderful Emma Thompson, who voiced Mrs. Lovett with high comedic flair (even if it was with a lowly cockney accent) and filled in the gaps between the lines with delightfully funny and smart physical comedy—all knees and elbows and awkward gait. The Mrs. Lovett role always seems like it's meant to provide a bit of levity, but Thompson turned it into one of the most spine-chilling performances of the night.

Another familiar face on the stage was that of Christian Borle, here appearing as the faux-Italian snake oil salesman, Pirelli. He too went all out in what can be a pretty hammy role in less skilled hands. It fit him like a glove. Though I knew exactly how much time Pirelli gets in the story, I found myself wishing there was more. Jay Armstrong Johnson and Erin Mackey as Anthony and Johanna, respectively, were really solid and managed to infuse a bit of comedy into their normally straight-played roles. I might even go so far as to call Mackey's Johanna quirky, a nice change from the usual, when I just spend all of those scenes waiting for the next scene.

Philip Quast as Judge Turpin was deliciously creepy, turning the pedophilic "ick" factor up to 11. He gets on his knees in tears and self-flagellates to punish himself, begging a higher power to relieve him of his lustful thoughts over his (did-we-mention-she's-only-16-years-old) ward, Johanna. And then, when he seems at the height of his misery, like he might break at any moment, he gives a great twitch and a gasp and then...suddenly...he's remarkably calm. And happy. Ick.

Jeff Blumenkrantz was as oily a Beadle as you could hope to find, unctuous and ingratiating, following the Judge around and encouraging his continued sociopathic pleasure-seeking. Blumenkrantz is a man of many talents, and it was great to see him, even in such a minor role.

Rounding out the cast was high school student Kyle Brenn as Tobias. He was great as Pirelli's boy, great in his adoration of Mrs. Lovett, and great as a twitchy, half-cracked waif turned loony by the sheer terror of the bake house.

One critique I was tempted to make about the show was that one of the actresses was left unnamed in the Playbill. Now, while Audra McDonald is immediately recognizable to quite a large number of people, I'm sure, it would have been nice to see her name with all the rest. However, it turns out that the part truly was a surprise almost to the last minute. All the same, it seems a shame to not give credit where credit is due. She was wonderful, as you would expect, going all out with the beggar woman's madness and popping up in the most amusingly inconvenient times.

While this is a very limited run event (only 5 shows in total), the production is being filmed for the PBS series, "Live from Lincoln Center." Do keep an eye out; this is one you're not going to want to miss.
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