Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson star in the New York Philharmonic concert presentation of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, directed by Lonny Price at Avery Fisher Hall.
Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson star in the New York Philharmonic concert presentation of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, directed by Lonny Price at Avery Fisher Hall.
(© David Gordon)

A joyous display of bloody revenge opened at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall last night in the first of five performances of the New York Philharmonic's concert presentation of Sweeney Todd. From the orchestra's first menacing notes, Stephen Sondheim's brilliant score of love and bloodlust is met with rapturous cheers by an audience intent on reveling in the celebrated composer's gloriously gruesome musical. The crowd roars as music stands, songbooks, and even flower vases are tossed aside, confirming director Lonny Price's unspoken promise to the assembly of devout Sondheim-ians that the two and a half hours of murder to come will oh so merrily roll along.

Bryn Terfel leads the cast in the title role — a part that divine forces seem to have hand-woven just for his booming baritone. It is, consequently, no surprise why Sweeney Todd has been a regular part of the opera star's vocal repertoire for over a decade. His nearly unparalleled vocal chops paired with his insatiable craving to stir up a crowd (not to mention his threateningly brawny stature) make him a perfect demon barber for the occasion. The larger-than-life Welshman finds an ideal criminal partner in Emma Thompson, who complements his melodramatic Sweeney with an equally hearty comedic performance as the cannibalistic pie maker Mrs. Lovett. Thompson wrangles Sondheim's tricky score with ease, acting her way through its trickier vocal moments, though never compromising any of the precise musicality that it requires. She and Terfel make for an infectiously playful pair, bringing the house down with "A Little Priest" and "By the Sea," two crowd-pleasing duets that highlight the duo's comically maniacal relationship.

A company of beautiful voices fill out the rest of the cast. Jay Armstrong Johnson lends his soaring tenor to his charming portrayal of Anthony Hope, the innocent young love interest of Sweeney's long-lost daughter Johanna, played by the gorgeous soprano Erin Mackey. Three-time Olivier Award winner Philip Quast and Tony Award winner Christian Borle — who play the villainous Judge Turpin and Pirelli, respectively — also get their due moments to shine before each meets his maker at Terfel's barbarous hands. High school sophomore Kyle Brenn offers the production one of its biggest surprises, poignantly singing the role of the Tobias Ragg with vocal purity and wide-eyed innocence. No surprise, however, could match five-time Tony winner Audra McDonald's unannounced opening-night cameo as Beggar Woman, a role she reprises from the 2000 Philharmonic mounting of Sweeney Todd.

Price, a veteran director of New York Philharmonic productions who will direct McDonald this month in Broadway's Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, paints with broad strokes for this concert performance: A 52-member cast consumes the stage, filled with dramatic yet minimalist designs by James Noone (set) Alan Adelman (lighting), and Peter Fitzgerald (sound). Cast members, one by one, bite the dust at the startling sound of a fog horn while a giant red hand graffitied on the back wall burns with red light. These bold elements bring out the engrossing enormity of the horror musical while giving it plenty of room to breathe and bask in the glow of its talented performers and inspired material. Rampant vengeful murder has never tasted so good.