Home Music Emma Thompson Sheds Mary Poppins for Mrs. Lovett in Magnificent “Sweeney Todd”

I’d have paid double last night and would pay it again to see Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel in “Sweeney Todd” at Avery Fisher Hall with the New York Philharmonic. Plus, we got value added indeed: Christian Borle as Pirelli the Barber and an uncredited surprise appearance the amazing Audra MacDonald as the Beggar Woman.

Lonny Price directed what I thought was going to be a concert version of the great Stephen Sondheim musical, my favorite of all musicals ever on Broadway. I’ve seen it so many times since the original production in 1981. This one, though, was kind of a mind blower because it was not just a concert, but a full fledged show minus a few props that were cleverly replaced or substituted.

You know from the start a lot is going to happen. The whole cast comes out dressed in formal wear, holding scripts, as if they are about to do a concert in Avery Fisher Hall. Then one by one they drop the scripts on the floor, turn over the potted plants, and rip off their finery. The whistle blows, and “Sweeney Todd” begins on Fleet Street in old London. Very clever.

Emma Thompson would get Angela Lansbury’s stamp of approval and a nod from Patti Lupone. For all her dour officiousness in “Saving Mr. Banks,” Thompson lets loose as crazy, happy, lovelorn pie baking Mrs. Lovett. If only Thompson would come to Broadway in this! She wouldn’t need to campaign to get a Tony Award. Her Mrs. Lovett is a comedic gem. And it turns out Thompson can sing, especially Sondheim, with the best of them. At last night’s performance she was so playful that she even grabbed a real mink piece off the neck of a female audience member, and wore it for some time through the show.

I’m not breaking any news when I tell you that Bryn Terfel does the Sondheim score justice and more. He may be a bigger, more towering Sweeney than ever, but his robust bass baritone gives the character a textured richness. Even if you loved Len Cariou, George Hearn, and Michael Cerveris, Terfel’s Sweeney is one for the ages. And he moves on stage like a musical comedy actor.

Of course, having Christian Borle as Pirelli the blackmailing barber is a gift. As for Audra, she won’t be in all the shows because of other commitments. But I could listen to her sing forever. She was last in “Sweeney Todd” 14 years ago at the NY Philharmonic Production in 2000 with George Hearn and Patti Lupone. Her reprise last night was a real treat.

So who was there? It was the opening of the season with a gala dinner but a lot of people just bought tickets to see the show. Backstage I ran into Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski, Barbara Cook as well as Sondheim, who got a thunderous ovation himself at the end of the show. In the theater: Bob Balaban, Michael Stuhlbarg from “Boardwalk Empire,” and Daphne Rubin Vega. I probably missed  few. There will be celebs there for every show through Saturday.

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Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.
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