Sep 17, 2014

Alive At Last

The New York Philharmonic's live concert staging of Sondheim's masterpiece Sweeney Todd will be broadcast on PBS stations on Sept. 26. I had the privilege of covering the show for current issue of The Sondheim Review. Below is the full text of my review.

If, as Sondheim will remind anyone who asks him, the hard-to-find dividing line between the opera and the musical is in the venue and its attendant audience expectations--if it’s done in a theater, it’s a musical, and if it’s in an opera house, it’s an opera, even if it’s the same text and score--then what do you call it when it’s done in a symphony hall under the aegis of one of the world’s great orchestras? A symphonic drama? A concert-ical? A philharm-opera?

The New York Philharmonic’s five-show staging of Sweeney Todd in March raised this mostly academic question in a new way, if only because the title character was played by the Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, in between gigs as Falstaff (with San Francisco Opera) and Mephistopheles (with Royal Opera in London). The rest of the cast was filled with musical-theater pros, with another notable exception that, like Terfel’s casting, threw the work into a new light: Sweeney’s partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett, was played the flinty polymath Emma Thompson, whose only prior experience in a bona fide musical was the 1985 West End revival of Me and My Girl. At the helm of this grim but astonishingly full-hearted revengers’ tragedy, then, were a pair of performers from outside the American musical theater mainstream--essentially, from the opera and the music hall (by which I mean the seemingly native British gift for patter, lazzi, and panto, a tradition to which Thompson can lay full claim). How did Sweeney harmonize with these fresh, contrasting voices?

One answer can be found in Terfel’s and Thompson’s shared citizenship; they may hail from different performance worlds, but they are unmistakably from the same isles as their characters, and this gave their scenes together a familiarity, an ease, that helped compensate for the inevitable disconnect between the two. Terfel is one of those impossibly towering, huge-headed operatic basses who loom over the stage more than they occupy it, and opposite the spry, straw-haired, nearly gamine-like Thompson, he occasionally seemed adrift in space, his only center of gravity being his lush, resonant voice, which wrapped lovingly around especially Sweeney’s more tender moments. For her part, Thompson managed Mrs. Lovett’s vocal duties with a valiant faux-warble that faintly but distinctly evoked a Monty Python drag falsetto, and filled all her scenes, sung and otherwise, with a vigorous sense of purpose, even an edge of aggression, that made Hugh Wheeler’s dialogue pop with an almost improvisational sizzle.

Of course, both Terfel’s occasional somnabulance and Thompson’s nerviness might fairly be attributed to the mad-dash rehearsal process by which these semi-staged concert renditions--both at the NY Phil and at the justly beloved Encores! series at City Center, across town--come into being. Director Lonny Price has become a duly celebrated master of this hybrid form, and to his great credit, his stagings haven’t settled into formula; where his Company at the NY Phil in 2011 had an appropriately presentational period gleam, his Sweeney staging was defined by its quasi-unruly chorus and a ghastly splattered-paint design. Price’s opening gambit was a deft bit of rabble-rousing: The company entered in formal evening wear and began reading the prologue from folders on music stands--then quickly ripped down this false front, fraying costumes, tossing music stands, exposing an ugly, wood-paneled back wall, even overturning a fake grand piano to create a stage in front of conductor Alan Gilbert.

The cheers this elicited from the crowd, though infectious, had little to do with Sweeney Todd, unless you see it as a show primarily about upending formality and decorum. But Price understands the entertainment value of such gimmicks, judiciously deployed, and no harm done. When Terfel and Thompson nodded to the respective orchestra sections on a few lines in “A Little Priest” (“fiddle player,” “piccolo player”), it earned little more than an indulgent grin; but when Thompson snatched Gilbert’s baton to primp Terfel’s hair, in a novel bit of staging for “By the Sea” (Mrs. Lovett giving Sweeney a quick trim), it captured perfectly the evening’s irreverent, let’s-try-this spirit.

On the other (bloody) hand, the red handprint by which Price signposted every murder--both with a looming projection and with the victims’ self-application of stage blood--had the benefit of consistency but little else; these handprints also turned up as a kind of brand label on the chorus’s otherwise tattered costumes, an odd fashion statement more than a binding design conceit. But it is to Price’s credit that somehow the awkwardness of Sweeney’s barber-chair victims having to rise, post-throat-slashing, and see themselves discreetly out the back door, came off with admirable fluidity.

Elsewhere the staging was nothing if not ambitious, with Josh Rhodes’ choreography expertly shaping the oversized crowd in “God That’s Good,” and action often spilling down the aisles and even into the balcony. Certainly the biggest challenge of the NY Phil’s “stage” for such events is the long egress on either side of the upstage platform, leading to breathless running entrances and exits across a pair of raked ramps, but Price and his cast--Thompson in particular--managed this acting/singing/dashing triathlon with aplomb.

Apart from the leads, the cast ranged from excellent to adequate. Philip Quast’s Judge Turpin suggested a superannuated leading man who still, to his doom, sees himself as dashing as ever. As Johanna, Erin Mackey largely bypassed the role’s chirpy ingenue brilliance for a more subdued and ultimately substantial reading, while Jay Armstrong Johnson’s Anthony largely offered the inverse: big vocals and bland affect. As Tobias, Kyle Brenn was similarly callow, and a tad soft-voiced for the part, but at least he comes by the youthfulness convincingly (he’s 16). And as if Jeff Blumenkrantz’s Beadle and Christian Borle’s Pirelli weren’t already perfectly slippery old-school villains, they capped their performances with a chilling blast of falsetto harmony in the finale.

It should be noted for the record that audiences at earlier performances were treated to Audra McDonald, in an unbilled performance, as the Beggar Woman, but on the night I saw it the role was played by Bryonha Marie Parham. And aficionados will want to know that while this rendition made some of the usual cuts--the tooth-pulling contest, the Beadle’s organ singalong--it did reinstate the Beggar Woman’s climactic lullaby, to a tune resembling “Poor Thing,” to fine if negligible effect.

McDonald also played the Beggar Woman in Price’s 2000 staging of Sweeney at the NY Phil, for which Terfel was originally slated opposite Patti LuPone (he bowed out due to a back injury, and George Hearn dutifully stepped in). I didn’t see that rendition, but on the reliable evidence of YouTube, it appears to have been a relatively formal, monochrome affair, with musical theater veterans who either had played or would play the leads on Broadway. The best that can be said for the new NY Phil rendition is that its two beyond-Broadway leads inspired similarly bold, out-of-the-box thinking among its creative team, from Price to the extremely game Gilbert and his world-beating band. Whatever we happen to call it--opera, musical, or just bloody good theater--this Sweeney was alive at last and full of joy.

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