Is there anything Emma Thompson cannot do? The British actress, snubbed for an Oscar nomination this year for her turn as Mary Poppins writer P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks, proves herself a felonious triple threat as the cannibalistic cook Mrs. Lovett in a five-night-only concert version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which opened Wednesday night at Avery Fisher Hall in NYC’s Lincoln Center. (If you’re unable to snag a ticket to one of the remaining performances, fret not: PBS is filming the production for broadcast later this year.)
Thompson sings surprisingly well, she quips, she does pratfalls, she swipes props from members of the New York Philharmonic — including, at one point, conductor Alan Gilbert’s baton. In short, she nearly steals the show out from under her very talented (and admittedly stronger-voiced) co-stars. The cast isn’t exactly full of slouches, either: Audra McDonald brings her booming soprano to the mysterious beggar woman’s “City on Fire,” Broadway vet Jay Armstrong Johnson (Hands on a Hardbody) makes a charming, fresh-voiced suitor to Sweeney’s flax-haired daughter (Chaplin‘s Erin Mackey), and the Welsh opera star Bryn Terfel delivers his strong, rich baritone to the title role and proves himself a suitably creepy leading man. I could imagine Tonys all around if this remarkable cast managed to slice a space into their schedules for a Broadway run.
Of course, one of the main draws of this concert production is the plus-size orchestral sound delivered by the Philharmonic, even though the ensemble can drown out the lyrics in some numbers. Overall, though, they amplify the virtues of one of Sondheim’s finest scores (and one of my personal favorites).
Director Lonny Price makes the most of Avery Fisher Hall’s cavernous space, using upstage platforms, the aisles, and even the balcony to tell the Grand Guignol story. This is less a concert version of the musical than a semi-staged one, fake blood and all, one whose opening moments literally upend our expectations: Terfel tosses his score to the ground, Thompson kicks over her music stand, two castmates rip the long sleeves from her gown, and a scrum of chorus members overturn what had appeared to be a grand piano. It’s a hilarious prelude to the undecorous, down-and-dirty proceedings unfolding in an undeniably grand venue. When Thompson’s Mrs. Lovett first appears in her downstage “pie shop,” she’s amusingly kneading dough on a timpani.
And guess who else attended the tale of this Sweeney Todd? Mr. Sondheim himself, who was led up on stage by Gilbert at the curtain call to a rapturous and joyous standing ovation.