Karen and Bruce and our friend Steve Reichl and I went to the New York Philharmonic production of *Sweeney Todd* on Saturday afternoon. They’ve been doing minimally staged productions of American musicals every year for a few years now - - I saw their *Carousel* last year, which was brilliant, and saw *Candide* on TV, which was delightful. They did *Sweeney Todd* in 2000, and it was meant to be starring Bryn Terfel, but he threw out his back and they brought in a Broadway Sweeney, George Hearn. The leading lady in that performance was Patti Lupone. They brought Terfel back, and he didn’t throw out his back this time. I saw him do *Sweeney Todd* at Lyric Opera of Chicago sometime around 2001, and he sang it well, but was a little too manic, a little too buggy-eyed. I saw a lot of Wotan in his Sweeney this time, that same effortless sense of power. It works very well for Sweeney.
Mrs. Lovett was played by Emma Thompson, in her New York stage debut. Where has she been hiding herself all these years? She was incredible, and I was surprised at what a nice voice she has. She really delivered the role. The star of the show was the show itself, what a perfect piece of theatre. It often does more than one thing at a time: you laugh, and at the same time, you feel uneasy for laughing. Thompson, in her performance, landed this balance more than anyone - - she was hilarious but also disturbing.
The supporting roles were played by Broadway types. Erin Morley was Johanna, she sang beautifully. Anthony was played by Jay Armstrong Johnson - - he’s a very handsome young man, and has a nice voice, but his singing got garbled up in his throat too often for my taste. It seems, to me, that if you’re doing a production of a musical with the New York Philharmonic, you should err more on the side of classical, instead of Broadway. I think they should have had a young opera singer in the role instead of this guy.
The judge was played by English actor Philip Quast. He did a good job, but didn’t find the right tone for his masochistic solo. He was a little too inward. Christian Borle (who I saw in *Little Me* a few weeks ago) was Pirelli, he was very good. Audra McDonald played the Beggar Woman in the other performances in this run, but for some reason she didn’t do the performance we saw. We had Bryonha Marie Parham in the role, who did a really impressive Audra McDonald impersonation.
The staging was fantastic. They had a runway down the middle of the stage and another from one side to the other. The initial set-up was tasteful and elegant: large flower arrangements on the sides of the stage, music stands along the front. The chorus and male soloists wore concert black, Morley had a pretty white dress, and Thompson had a drop-dead red gown with a cape. I couldn’t figure out why they had a concert grand in the middle of the stage, thought it must have had something to do with the staging. They started the prologue - - “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd”. Halfway through, Terfel took his binder off the music stand and threw it on the floor. Thompson did the same, and all the others. Then things started getting roughed up: the flowers got thrown off their tables, the chorus tore off their clothes and got all grungy, and best of all, Thompson’s red cape came off and the sleeves torn off her gown. She played this moment as a major catharsis, it was boffo. And just as I expected, the grand piano came into play - - it turned out to be a wooden box shaped like a grand piano. They took the legs off and turned it upside down, it became one of the playing spaces.
The NY Phil did Sondheim’s *Follies* in 1985. I know I’ve seen four productions of this show, but can’t get enough of it - - isn’t it time for the NY Phil to do it again?