Aisle View: The Demon Barber of Lincoln Center

There is always a place for a production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's Sweeney Todd, especially one that gives us an oversized orchestra filling the hall with Sondheim's masterful score. The New York Philharmonic, which presented a concert version of Sweeney in 2000, does so again with strong results. Longtime fans can indulge in a Sweeney comparison game, of course, but that is not the point. There are still at least a few people around who have never seen Sweeney with a full orchestra, or a stage Sweeney at all. For these folks--who make up the great majority of the potential audience--any competently-assembled Sweeney brings vast pleasures. As does the Sweeney in question.

Any discussion of the piece usually starts with the star performances. In this case, though, let us hear a word for the New York Philharmonic. Sweeney isn't symphonic, but the players--a significant portion of whom played the 2000 version--sink their teeth into it. Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert does not seem to have clocked any time in a Broadway orchestra pit, and Sweeney ain't easy. Given the reduced rehearsal period, Gilbert has the score well in hand.

Playing the leading roles are Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel as Sweeney and two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson as Mrs. Lovett. There have been numerous expert Lovetts in the past, going back to Angela Lansbury in the original 1979 production. Thompson, it turns out, is pure musical theatre joy (as those who remember her in the 1985 London production of Me and My Girl will attest). While her singing voice is not exactly up to the role, she gets through it expertly while using every word as a cudgel, garnering laughs and roars with her delivery and stage business. Her limbs, as Lovett, seem to be made of pipe cleaners.

The evening is rich--and somewhat overbalanced--by the supporting performances. The Italianate barber Pirelli is not a starring role, and was never meant to be. Here, we get the rambunctious Christian Borle, who might be the Pirelli of our dreams. He plays it like Groucho Marx pouring on his idea of Neapolitan color; Pirelli is actually a low class British bloke, pouring on his idea of Neapolitan color. Borle's ideas here--all of them--are unalloyed delight. The Beggar Woman with mysterious backstory is listed in the Playbill with a question mark. It turns out to be none other than Audra Ann McDonald, who played the role in 2000. McDonald is instantly identifiable in the formal-dress opening, but once she puts on her rags you wouldn't recognize her. (McDonald will play the role through Friday, with Bryonha Marie Parham coming in for the two final performances on Saturday March 8.)

We also get fine work from the supporting players. Jay Armstrong Johnson (impressive as the young man in Hands on a Hardbody) makes a noble and likable Anthony, with a voice that rings clear across the auditorium. Actor/composer Jeff Blumenkrantz seems an unlikely choice for the Beadle, but he brings a fittingly sinister air to the proceedings. His interactions with Ms. Thompson in the Parlor sequence suggest new colors in the piece.

Director Lonny Price, who staged the first Philharmonic version, starts the evening with a grand coup de théâtre. Without spoiling things, let us say that he sets us up for a well-behaved, traditional concert version before abruptly and brutally sweeping it away. The entire production seems like it might profitably be adapted for small-scale productions of the piece. Let it be added, though, that the heavy-handed blood-smeared prints on the walls and costumes provide unnecessary overkill. It's Man Devouring Man, we get it.

If we seem to have neglected to say anything about Terfel, there is alas a reason. He sings the role well, as one might expect, and presents a suitably menacing appearance. Missing, though, is the inner turmoil written into the role. The finest Sweeneys show us a man who is deadened; who becomes alive again, in the presence of his razors; and who lapses into insanity in the brilliant tour de force which Sondheim calls "Epiphany." All this, with the half-remembered love-and-beauty represented by "Pretty Women." Terfel--who withdrew as "indisposed" from the 2000 Philharmonic concert version--sings the role well, but doesn't give us the extra-emotional theatricality of Sweeneys past.

Still, the Philharmonic's Sweeney is more than carried by Thompson, Borle, McDonald, Fisher and the others. Plus the work of Sondheim, of course, who was literally dragged up onto the stage--from midway back in Avery Fisher Hall--by Thompson and others to cap the opening night curtain calls.