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BWW Reviews: Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD Is a Killer at the New York Philharmonic

Related: Sweeney Todd, New York Philharmonic
BWW Reviews: Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD Is a Killer at the New York Philharmonic

Like the young Anthony Hope in Stephen Sondheim's scintillating SWEENEY TODD, "I've sailed the world, beheld its wonders...," with SWEENEY TODDs ranging from the original cast in New York, to an all-Japanese version in Tokyo, and have never failed to be thrilled by it. But there was something about hearing it with the New York Philharmonic, led by its music director, Alan Gilbert, that showed it in all its greatness.

Even more than when the orchestra did it previously in 2000, then led by Andrew Litton, the Philharmonic delivered all the fire they would bring to Beethoven or Stravinsky, along with the jokes as in Haydn or Rossini and gave Sondheim's wonderful music its due. They also were open to the bits of business that director Lonny Price injected into the show--swiping a stool from a bass player, the baton from Maestro Gilbert, and so on--and proved they're the best Broadway pit orchestra in town (even though they were on stage).

A great coup de theatre

Although director Price staged the previous Philharmonic incarnation as well and had the same Beggar Woman, the glorious Audra MacDonald at the performance I saw, this was otherwise a different kettle of fish. The opening was a great coup de theatre, with the cast coming out very formally, as if they were going to sing an oratorio by Handel; then they tossed aside their scores, music stands and other paraphernalia, and even flipped a prop piano on its side. They seemed to be saying "anything goes," but that unfortunately didn't quite hold up for the rest of the show.

This go-around seemed less rehearsed, less polished, more raw--though there was nothing under par about the singing. The set design by James Noone had some nice touches, such as the red hand projected on the rear wall to symbolize each of Sweeney's victims, but the arrival of his new barber chair looked like a theatre renovation cast-off and threw away the moment.

A towering voice

I've heard Bryn Terfel, the evening's Sweeney in the big Mozart operas, along with Wotan in Wagner's Ring, and admired his musicality and acting. What does he bring to Sweeney? (Though he pulled out of the orchestra's 2000 concert at the last moment, he has done the role numerous times.) A big scale voice that seems well suited for the wonderful score--and pretty stolid acting.

Terfel made faces that reminded me of the star of another Sondheim show, Zero Mostel in A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM. I'm not sure he has this character under his skin--undoubtedly a challenging part of the role--but that's what could change it from very decent portrayal to something more. His Sweeney didn't come across as a man wronged who's looking for vengeance, but well, just a pretty monstrous character who happened to have a towering voice.

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.

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