Who could see how the road would twist?

Review: Sweeney Todd, “Live at Lincoln Center” (TV)

Sweeney Todd resurrects every few years. Home viewers can watch the 2001 concert starring Patti LuPone, Tim Burton’s 2007 movie, and the 1982 national tour with Angela Lansbury on DVD. This new 2014 Lincoln Center concert, which aired last night on PBS, isn’t as strong as the other choices, though it has some nice musical moments. They wisely chose Broadway talent for the cast, aside from two large exceptions.

Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 6.00.52 PM

Emma Thompson is mostly successful as an especially frantic Mrs. Lovett. Thompson’s singing isn’t remarkable; lots of head voice, and she pushes to get the words out. But she accomplishes a lot with small physical tics, a goofy bounce paired with a limp, and persistent (maybe overly persistent) attempts at levity. Lovett’s humor feels more desperate as the bodies pile up; it’s the facade she must maintain to keep Sweeney on her side. I wish we could see her with more rehearsal in a full production.

Compared to Mrs. Lovett, the role of Sweeney always seems harder to get right. As the lone opera singer here, Bryn Terfel sings Sondheim beautifully in the more lyrical songs. His physical presence, from his costuming and crazed hair to his ominous stagger across the stage, is plenty unnerving. But Terfel doesn’t give Sweeney much range or let himself get angry enough (maybe to save his voice?). Thompson has little to play off. He does give us a nicely acted final scene cradling the Beggar Woman, then offering up his own neck.

Of the others, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Philip Quast play the strongest Anthony and Judge I’ve seen; Quast is unexpectedly tender and pitiable. I’m on the fence about Tobias played as a lucid teenager (Kyle Brenn) instead of a mentally disturbed man, though Brenn’s clearly talented. The benefit of this concert is size: The New York Philharmonic sounds stunning, and the tempi are sometimes slower than usual, allowing the music to breathe. Though I missed the factory whistle.

Sweeney Todd, Lyric Stage, September 14, 2014

Two weeks ago, I took in Lyric Stage Company’s Boston production, and was pleased to see the show more intimately. Spiro Veloudos directed a small cast, many of whom doubled as chorus members, adding an extra layer of remove to the invitation to “attend the tale.” The sheer sound of 17 people singing full-throttle in such a confined space, at punishingly high tessituras, was chilling.

The strongest vocally was Paul C. Soper as the Judge, who sang the masochistic “Johanna” with ferocious anguish; very uncomfortable up close, very effective. Also sung well was Meghan LaFlam’s “Green Finch and Linnet Bird,” with the right blend of sweetness and sadness.

Amelia Broome (I saw her in a stunning Adding Machine in 2010) was a practical Mrs. Lovett. Her reaction to Sweeney’s first kill was droll, unconcerned; but when she and Sweeney start swapping pies, Broome became a romantic, dancing gaily by herself. As Sweeney, Christopher Chew played up the comedy, with a certain knowing irony in “By the Sea” while Mrs. Lovett woos him. But he didn’t do menacing well; his “Epiphany” was colorless.

The first act felt off. Some humor was overlooked, and actors dropped lyrics and got behind the orchestra (which they couldn’t see) in “The Worst Pies in London” and “Kiss Me.” Then Veloudos and music director Jonathan Goldberg raised the intensity in the second act. The final sequence raced to the oven. Going for speed paid off; it’s like the play got away from Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, powerless to stop what they’d set in motion. One unusual choice: the “A-ha!” chords were cut when Sweeney discovers the Beggar Woman at the end. Maybe they figured we knew the ending by now. We’ve attended this tale before.

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