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So richly textured is Stephen Sondheim's score for Sweeney Todd, his 1979 Tony Award-winning musical, that to hear it played by the New York Philharmonic--with Jonathan Tunick's lush orchestrations intact--can only be described as theatrical nirvana. Add to that the vocal talents of the most gifted performers from the worlds of Broadway and opera, and the event becomes the event of the season. In three performances at Avery Fisher Hall to conclude the Philharmonic's four-year American Classics Initiative, this Sweeney Todd is more than a concert revival of a landmark Sondheim musical. It confirms the fact that Sondheim, more than that of any other writer for the musical theater, has fused those worlds and done so with dazzling aplomb.

Returning to a role he first played on Broadway (as the successor to Len Cariou, the original Sweeney) and in a national tour nearly 20 years ago, two-time Tony Award winner George Hearn endows the Demon Barber of Fleet Street with a razor-sharp intensity that quickly cuts a swath across the proscenium, even in a concert setting with the Philharmonic in full view. From his first bitterly rendered note, Hearn embodies Sweeney Todd, a man consumed by a thirst for revenge and a fear-inducing knack for obsessive rage that no rational thought can assuage or contain. Even the Broadway faithful who fondly recall Cariou's performance will be unable to discount the sheer virtuosity of Hearn. And, compared to his performance on the video of Sweeney Todd (taped during the tour), the concert finds Hearn giving more emotional resonance to the role than ever, displaying a voice that is unblemished and undiminished by time.

Angela Lansbury created the role of Mrs. Lovett and, as one might expect, Patti LuPone makes no attempt whatsoever to fill Lansbury's shoes, dress, or anything else in the Philharmonic performances. Taking full advantage of the freewheeling comic vein in which Sondheim wrote the role--a mixture of the best and worst of the English music hall tradition--LuPone is a sublime force of nature, aiding and abetting Hearn's performance with a cajoling, seductive, even cathartic take on Mrs. L. Despite widespread reports of nervousness about this assignment (a condition not exactly helped by the unexpected departure of Bryn Terfel, who was originally supposed to sing Sweeney Todd), LuPone is found in her finest fettle in this, her first Sondheim musical. More than relying on her trademark vibrato and the other vocal pyrotechnics for which she is celebrated, LuPone conquers the difficult Sondeheim score and acts the daylights out of the part.

What ultimately transforms the concert from a three-night benefit for the Philharmonic to an event of memorable proportions, however, is the contribution made by the rest of the cast. Three-time Tony winner Audra McDonald bumps and grinds through the Beggar Woman role, and when she's not doing that, she's yet again modulating her voice in such a way that she manages to hit upon both the musical and emotional notes of each moment. Davis Gaines as Anthony and Heidi Grant Murphy as Joanna are equally memorable; in the beautiful Act I quartet ("Kiss Me"/"Ladies in Their Sensitivities") one wishes that Paul Plishka as the Judge and John Aler as the Beadle were less technical and more in tune with the vocal warmth exhibited by Gaines and Murphy. Neil Patrick Harris, as Tobias, renders "Not While I'm Around" so earnestly and with such purity that it is among the highlights of the concert. Stanford Olsen as Pirelli, and the New York Choral Artists, 40 strong, enable this Sweeney Todd to equal--if not surpass--the standard set for such events by the Philharmonic's revisitation of Follies 15 years ago.

Director Lonny Price staged the concert, which received a tremendous and sustained ovation at its conclusion. His assignment was certainly a tough one: to create a concert version of Sweeney Todd with no set, no costumes, minimal staging, the New York Philharmonic onstage, and the aforementioned chorus in tow. Given those obstacles, Price does reasonably well--but the decision to use a chrome stool to represent a barber chair does seem a bit odd for this Todd, and Price might have been well-advised not to move those 40 chorus members quite so much. Still, an aural feast--not a visual one--was the objective of the night, and insofar as it celebrated one of the chief works in the Sondheim canon, it can be said that the mission was accomplished in unforgettable fashion.

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