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Theater Review: Nashville Rep ‘Sweeney’ a Worthy Return Trip

SweeneyNRT13Nashville Repertory Theatre has returned to London with a wickedly wonderful revival of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street that is well worth another trip.

The complicated words and notes of Stephen Sondheim’s delicious dark confection (sharpened to a razor’s edge by Hugh Wheeler’s devilishly delightful book) are once again served up by Producing Artistic Director René D. Copeland and her talented cohorts with plenty of revenge-is-a-dish-best-served-cold relish. The recently rechristened company is successful the second time around because they have beautifully built on what worked in 2008 and not merely tried to recreate their previous inspired incarnation.

SweeneyNRT9Gary C. Hoff’s set is a good example of the company’s determination to do more than rest on its well-deserved laurels. His 2008 design – to use Hoff’s words at the time – “strove to reinforce the idea that when society starts thinking of the individual as a commodity, it will fall apart”; the musical is set at the height of the 19th Century Industrial Revolution but in Hoff’s creation the iron is already rusting. His multi-level design this time enlarges (and to use a word from Copeland’s notes about the new production) enhances that feeling of a place corrupted by modern idols and ancient appetites.

Michael Barnett provides smoky stabs of light that cast ominous shadows on the players while the colors behind windows and doors change to suit the mood of various scenes and songs. Trish Clark once more shows she doesn’t know how to put a foot wrong when it comes to costumes that detail a period while never obscuring the characters that wear them. Ricky Lighthall‘s sound is sublime.

SweeneyNRT10Music Director and Conductor Jason Tucker and his colleagues – Emily Bowland on clarinet, Ben Burnley on French horn, Luke Easterling on bass, Patricia Gunter on bassoon, Cassie Shudak on violin and Lindsey Smith-Trostle on cello – depending on the score’s ever-changing demands can sound as big and bright as a Broadway orchestra or as intimate and intriguing as a small chamber ensemble. Their technical aptitude keeps musical timing in its unquestionably essential place while their artistry strongly underpins and comments on the story’s intoxicating mixture of Grand Guignol and Penny Dreadful.

The supporting actors in this Sweeney contain familiar and first-time faces for Nashville Rep; vets include Bobby Wyckoff as the flamboyant mountebank Signor Pirelli and Samuel Whited as ruthless henchman Beadle Bamford, who are as ever in fine voice with high-quality characterizations. As he was in 2008 Wyckoff is appropriately oily as the mixer of elixirs who knows a potentially lucrative secret; Whited can be wistful one moment and wicked the next as the aide to malicious magistrate Judge Turpin (Galen Fott, who among other qualities has a basso profondo element in his singing range that profoundly underscores his character’s sickened soul).

SweeneyNRT15Among the company newcomers are real-life husband and wife Nathan Meyer and Whitney Meyer as lovebirds Anthony Hope and Johanna; the NYC-based 2009 Belmont University grads sing “Johanna” and “”Green Finch and Linnet Bird” as if it were written just for them, the rich warm glories of their clear, well-rounded notes echoing through TPAC’s Andrew Johnson Theater like bells pealing in passionate unison.

Rounding out the exquisite supporting cast are Patrick Waller as sweet and simple Tobias Ragg, Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva as the warm-hearted Birdseller (among other well-delineated characters) and Megan Murphy Chambers as the mysterious and mad Beggar Woman. As he did in 2008 Waller makes the most of his part in “Not While I’m Around”; the soulful strength of Whitcomb-Oliva’s voice complements her truth-filled acting; and Chambers, who rather eerily like Holly Wooten in the same role six years ago suffered a preview-performance injury that now requires Chambers to play her part on crutches also used by her predecessor, provides the powerful singing for which she’s justifiably heralded while making her characterization every bit as engaging as her dynamic voice.

SweeneyNRT19And now to this Sweeney’s leading actors, who unquestionably anchor this show with incredible talent and formidable focus: Martha Wilkinson as Mrs. Lovett and Matthew Carlton as Mr. Todd. Wilkinson triumphed in this role six years ago with her adroit mix of well-timed humorous delivery (such as in “The Worst Pies in London” and “A Little Priest”) and a penchant for heart-rending pathos (the aforementioned “Not While I’m Around” and “By the Sea” among other numbers provide opportunities for those feelings to emerge); that mix is again a solid foundation for her performance, but in this production she takes her character even deeper into the hopes and fears of a woman grasping for her last chance at the life she desperately wants.

Carlton was Judge Turpin last time as Lane Davies gave a very intriguing “hollow man” spin to the title role; now it’s his turn to take us on the journey his character has made from the naïve but loving Benjamin Barker to the embittered and vengeful Sweeney Todd. Carlton guides us through his character’s past and present with a steady hand that doesn’t dole out too much too soon. Yes, he gives us a good idea of where we’re headed at the very beginning in “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” but the explosion of anger that fuels his terrifying “Epiphany” near the end of Act I is so intense it feels as if the entire theater is about to be consumed in its emotional flame. His singing, like everything else in his performance, is sublimely pitched to suit moment and mood; his work, like Sweeney’s arm when his razors are restored to him, is complete.

SweeneyNRT6Nashville Repertory Theatre’s 30th anniversary season is off to a stupendous start with this worthy return to Sweeney Todd. Attend it and you’ll know why so many feel the troupe offers the best theater in the Music City.

Nashville Repertory Theatre’s production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street directed by René D. Copeland continues through Nov. 1 in TPAC’s Andrew Johnson Theater. For more info including a calendar with performance dates and times click here. Tickets start at $50 (they start at $12 for students with valid ID, though some restrictions apply); tickets for preview performances are $25.  A cabaret table seating upgrade is available for an additional $10 per ticket. Tickets are on sale at the TPAC Box Office (at 505 Deaderick St. in Downtown Nashville), by phone at (615) 782-4040 or by clicking here. Note: This show has mature themes and language.

SweeneyNRT8SweeneyNRT11SweeneyNRT12SweeneyNRT17SweeneyNRT16SweeneyNRT5SweeneyNRT21SweeneyNRT22SweeneyNRT18SweeneyNRT14SweeneyNRT20SweeneyNRT7*Photos by Shane Burkeen courtesy Nashville Repertory Theatre.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).