• Lillie Burke

Sweeney Todd puts on killer performance

Nashville Repertory Theatre’s season opener stunned audiences with a dazzling performance that promises a year of strong, awe-inspiring theater.

The repertory company, formally known as Tennessee Repertory Theatre, has never been afraid of experimental theater, but as the group embraces its new name, it looks to push the limits even further.

This bold approach certainly paid off with Nashville Rep’s opening performance of “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” which has already been extended to meet popular demand.

The talented, interactive cast, featuring two Belmont University alumni, will now be performing “Sweeney Todd” every week in October, ending in two final performances on Nov. 1.

With brilliant music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, fans of Edgar Allen Poe and the macabre genre will be fully engaged by this depiction of how far one man goes to exact revenge on the people who ravaged his wife, stole his baby and unjustly exiled him.

“Sweeney Todd” was originally created as a play by Christopher Bond in 1973 but was rewritten as a musical by Sondheim in 1979. The innovative musical ran on Broadway during the early 1980s until its popularity waned.

In 2007, Tim Burton revived the musical masterpiece by turning it into a full-length movie starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Burton kept most of the integrity of Sondheim’s script and music but dramatized much of the gore in an attempt to appeal to a new generation.

Fans of Burton’s version of the musical thriller will not be disappointed by Nashville Rep’s rendition of “Sweeney Todd.” The actors capture the spirit of Burton’s macabre humor and use their own charm and charisma to turn this Sondheim classic into an engaging performance worthy of multiple views.

However, potential viewers hesitant of seeing this beautiful performance because of the blood-and-gore centered Burton rendition need not be afraid. The actors use melodramatic pantomiming to produce the effect of death without being explicit.

The artistic director for “Sweeney Todd” creatively renovated the small black box theater space of TPAC to create a visually stunning two-level stage design and provide an intimate seating area for certain audience members.

This cabaret seating aspect allows the cast to directly interact with audience members during several scenes. It is not uncommon for actors to deliver their lines while running past guests at their tables. The effect is a memorable three-dimensional viewing experience that is both engaging and fun.

“Sweeney Todd” is performed in the avant-garde, experimental style of theater similar to Cirque Du Soleil shows. Characters make use of the entirety of the performance space and often break the fourth wall by acknowledging audience members. The use of avant-garde style brought the performance to life and added depth and intensity to the plot by instilling a sense of realism.

Matthew Carlton, winner of Nashville Scene’s Best Actor award, fully embraced this experimental style in his portrayal of Sweeney Todd. During “Epiphany,” Carlton paced the length of the performance area and spoke directly to certain male members of the audience, enticing them to come into his shop for a shave.

Carlton’s chemistry with Martha Wilkinson, who played Mrs. Lovett, was also most noteworthy in this scene. The two played off of each other with the ease of lifelong friends and brought a sense of humor and lightness to an otherwise dark, disturbing scene.

Nathan and Whitney Meyer, who graduated from Belmont in 2009 and depict the love-stricken Johanna and Anthony, also have incomparable chemistry that ensures audience attention any time they appear together.

Nashville Repertory Theater has tickets for the performance available through TPAC’s website, and Belmont students are eligible for discounts by using the promo code “BELMONT.” Nashville Rep would warn viewers that many loud noises, bright lights and intense fog will be prominent during the performances.

A preview for the performance can be found here: http://youtu.be/1KZDgVHdtcM

PHOTO: Shane Burkeen, courtesy of Nashville Rep.

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