Emma Thompson makes a smashing Gotham stage debut as the meat-pie maven Mrs. Lovett in the New York Philharmonic’s splendid staging of “Sweeney Todd,” more than holding her own in a cast of Broadway vets and alongside a formidable Sweeney, opera star Bryn Terfel. Continuing on from his 2011 NY Phil staging of “Company,” director Lonny Price offers a more conventional but no less powerful take on Stephen Sondheim’s grand guignol revenge opera than John Doyle’s stripped-down 2005 Broadway revival (in which the actors doubled as the orchestra), while what may be Sondheim’s most robust symphonic score comes to vibrant life under the hand of conductor Alan Gilbert. Two nights of this limited five-performance run will be filmed for future broadcast on PBS’ long-running “Live From Lincoln Center” series.
Although the actors in this “Sweeney” leave the instrument playing to the pros, Price does make a clever running motif out of instruments and accessories transformed into improbable but effective props. Mrs. Lovett procures a bass player’s stool as Sweeney’s first barber’s chair, and a bit later, a conductor’s baton as a comb. Elsewhere, a timpani becomes a baking table and a cymbal a pie plate, while a trombone stands in for the all-important meat grinder.
Such gestures chisel away nicely at the proverbial fourth wall separating the cast from the 52-piece orchestra that happens to be sharing the stage — or whatever’s left of that wall after Price delivers a sledgehammer thwack to it during the show’s opening “Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” After dutifully filing on stage in stiff formal wear and resting their librettos on a row of music stands, the cast proceeds to go “off book” in a major way mid-song, violently casting stands aside while simultaneously tearing away parts of their costumes, inverting a prop grand piano into a makeshift stage and peeling back a rear-wall stage curtain to reveal a splay of anarchist graffiti (including “Sweeney” scrawled in ragged green script). It’s the evening’s most dazzling feat of stagecraft, and a one that quickly allays any fears that one may be in for an old-fashioned “concert” performance.
Price has no other tricks quite that dazzling up his sleeve, though with material and performers like these, one scarcely needs them. A latter-day Jacobean tragedy with roots that date back to mid-19th century magazine serials, “Sweeney Todd” is, like many a Sondheim show, a pained study in unrequited love and the unresolved self. Sweeney is himself the victim of another man’s adulterous passion, and is in turn lusted after by the calculating spinster Lovett, who dreams of seaside bliss with her newfound beau while all he dreams of is rivulets of blood dripping from his shears.
Terfel, who previously wielded Sweeney’s gleaming silver blades for productions in Chicago and London, cuts a commanding figure, not just because of his booming bass-baritone, but because he finds the crippled humanity inside the bloodthirsty barber, the once loving husband and father driven mad by revenge.
Although Thompson isn’t as technically proficient a singer as others who have embodied her role (including Angela Lansbury in the original Broadway production and Patti LuPone in the 2005 revival) and sometimes seems to struggle with songs (like “The Worst Pies in London”) that test the outer reaches of her upper register, she hurls herself into the role with such energetic abandon that it hardly matters. Flouncing about the stage like a demented Goldilocks in a long crimson gown and blond fright wig, she captures Mrs. Lovett in all her contradictory dimensions: madwoman, lonelyheart and odd, forlorn mother figure, especially during her tender and haunting “Not While I’m Around,” a duet with the street urchin Tobias (Kyle Brenn) who becomes, for a moment, her surrogate son.
Rounding out the able-bodied cast are Philip Quast as the sinister Judge Turpin, beautifully harmonizing with Terfel on “Pretty Women”; Jeff Blumenkrantz as Turpin’s loyal stooge, Beadle Bamford; a suitably wide-eyed Jay Anthony Johnson as the gallant sailor Anthony, deeply in thrall to Sweeney’s caged-bird daughter, Johanna (Erin Mackey, playing the role as less of a ditz than she is sometimes conceived); a hilarious Christian Borle as the sham snake-oil salesman Pirelli; and effortlessly reprising her role as the mad beggar woman from the Phil’s 2000 “Sweeney” concert, the incomparable Audra McDonald (who will, unfortunately, miss the two final performances, on Saturday).