On Sept. 26, PBS aired the live concert performance of Stephen Sondheim’s musical masterpiece Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which took place at the Lincoln Center in New York City. Renown opera star Bryn Terfel took on the titular role of Sweeney Todd while Academy Award-winning actress Emma Thompson,played his mischievous counterpart, Mrs. Lovett.
The story of Sweeney Todd follows the life of a once successful barber who has been wrongfully incarcerated for the past 15 years. He returns to his hometown of London in hopes of reuniting with his wife and daughter. To his horror, the barber discovers his wife is allegedly deceased and his daughter, now a grown woman, is held as a ward in the house of the judge that wrongfully sentenced him. The barber, once known as Benjamin Barker, now declares himself as Sweeney Todd and forms an unlikely partnership with a local baker named Mrs. Lovett. Lovett, who has a certain fancy for the barber, aids Todd in his quest to seek revenge on the judge and reclaim his daughter.
The rest of the cast of the Lincoln Center’s Sweeney Todd includes Tony Winner Christian Borle as Pirelli, Erin Mackey as Johanna, Jay Armstrong Johnson as Anthony Hope, Phillip Quast as Judge Turpin, Kyle Brenn as Tobias Ragg, Jeff Blumenkrantz as The Beadle and six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald as the Beggar Woman. The cast was supported by a powerhouse ensemble of vocal performers.
The Lincoln Center’s live production of Sweeney Todd was a very solid performance piece that took a musical theatre classic that has been adapted a million ways before and somehow managed to allow audiences to relive a beautiful sense of discovery. This particular version of the show felt almost modern in a way, though the setting is Victorian England. Direction made clever use of scene changes by having ensemble members post the setting of each scene on either side of the stage on an almost punk-London styled poster. The previous use of ribbons for the blood of Sweeney’s victims was omitted as it was cleverly replaced by having Terfel’s hand doused with fake blood and hand printing his victim’s face. The use of a bullhorn also replaced the famous factory whistle.
The production begins very formally with the principal cast standing in a line across the front of the stage with music stands and libretto books upon them, setting the tone for a simply constructed concert performance. The tone changes drastically after the first verse of the opening number is sung and Terfel boldly takes his libretto and throws it on the ground. Thompson follows suit and pushes her book flat off the stand as the rest of the cast rids themselves of the concert formality.
The movement then brings the entire company to a true state of performance as an epic thrust of the fist in the air is executed by all as soon as the chorus begins. Throughout the opening number, the company continues to sing while stripping of any formalities and adjusting their wardrobe and set to accommodate the tone of Sweeney Todd, ending with a button that will leave even the casual viewer drawn in completely.
Terfel gives a stunning vocal performance to the tile role in addition to embodying Todd in a fresh, new way that makes audiences question why they love such a villainous character so dearly. Thompson reveals her vocal chops to the world as she holds her own in the extremely wordy lyrics and fluctuating score of Sondheim’s. The actress brings a quirky sense of comedy to Mrs. Lovett that reaches the exact border of “over-the-top,” but due to Thompson’s extreme commitment to believing each of her actions she remains completely believable and gives a very heartwarming performance.
McDonald plays the overtly sexual Beggar Woman in the best way possible and gives her viewers a new type of performance not previously seen before. Borle, Quast and the rest of the supporting cast all do very well in their assisted storytelling through their heavily committed acting choices and top-notch vocal performances.
Sweeney Todd Live at Lincoln Center was an overall success and is certain to please any lover of the classic musical thriller. Terfel and Thompson are also set to reprise their roles in a new production of Sweeney Todd with the English National Opera in 2015. The entire Lincoln Center production can be streamed for free on the PBS website.
Review by Cody Collier