"Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd"—that's not only a song lyric, but also an exhortation, so compellingly rich is the new Tennessee Rep production of the famed Stephen Sondheim musical.
The Rep's artistic team, headed up by director René Copeland, has shaken up audience perceptions with this one, primarily via an eye-catching reverse arrangement of Johnson Theater. Patrons enter through a different door than usual, and Gary Hoff's foreboding, fog-enshrouded set juts out from the north wall, where people usually are sitting. The seating arrangement is alternative as well, to allow the cast movement beyond the playing area. (These are certainly fresh ideas, though unless one is sitting in the back rows, you often don't see the legs and feet of the actors. Innovation brings tradeoffs.)
The production itself is stirring, passionate and suspensefully delivered, and certainly represents a musical breakthrough of sorts for the company.
With its rare combination of elusive romanticism and outrageously grisly action, Todd definitely continues to engage. It's a revenge story with a tawdry Dickensian milieu, delicious plot twists, heinous bad guys, a damsel in distress, and two of the most complementary yet contradictory leading characters one is ever apt to root for.
Lane Davies plays the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a role this accomplished, mature actor has longed to take on. He cuts a tall, handsome figure, and he strikes the right poses: both ominous madman and sympathetic antihero. Davies' singing finds a workable balance between gentle baritone and recitation. He's also got the challenge of making his gangly way around Hoff's shifting set pieces—schlepped with yeoman fortitude by his fellow actors—as his character strives to redeem his thwarted life and slashes throats with determined purpose.
Todd's enterprising partner in crime is the practical piemaker Mrs. Lovett, brilliantly performed by Martha Wilkinson, born to embody the role. Wilkinson brings a lushness to this somewhat cartoonish character, yet she still delivers the jokes with coquettish charm, ratchets up the drama when pertinent, and sings with high class. It's a smashing turn, possibly the apex of her distinguished Nashville career.
The rest of the cast of 10—who somehow are able to imply a teeming London, each taking on many multiple roles—are at the top of their games. The ensemble includes the lovely-voiced Brooke Bryant as Todd's daughter, Johanna; the marvelous Zachary Hess, a warm, full-throated tenor and a new face in Nashville Opera's young artist program, as her pure-hearted suitor; Bobby Wyckoff, whose comical singing as Pirelli the snake-oil salesman is joyfully forceful; Matthew Carlton as the evil Judge Turpin; and Patrick Waller, whose poignant duet with Wilkinson, "Not While I'm Around," takes on rare dramatic life that boosts its impact beyond mere musical beauty.
Rounding out the ensemble are Marguerite Lowell, Samuel Whited and Holly Wooten. Musical director Timothy Fudge conducts the seven-piece band, who thankfully manage to sound much larger. Their approach to the score is occasionally more languorous than usual, but that often serves to deepen the melancholy mood.
The Rep hits all the marks with this daring yet tartlingly confident mounting.
Ars gratia artis
Jack E. Chambers' one-man performance in GroundWorks Theatre's Chesapeake is nothing if not valiant. Solo shows aren't easy to sustain, especially when they're two hours long. But Chambers—alone on a bare stage, assisted occasionally by sound effects and rear-wall projections—makes a serious attempt to bring to life Lee Blessing's cleverly worded script about a performance artist named Kerr.
Inspired by a well-meaning but culturally illiterate father, and also by the early 20th century Futurist Movement leader Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the outspoken young bisexual Kerr moves to New York to escape Southern narrow-mindedness and pursue his artistic dreams. Chambers narrates the story with wit and sincerity, as Kerr becomes increasingly obsessed with a Southern politician named Therm Pooley, who's pledged to cut off National Endowment for the Arts funding.
The satirical Pooley tale—an undisguised indictment of jowly, thick-drawled right-wing Philistines (you know the type)—is largely explored via an Act 2 fantasy, in which Chambers inhabits the mind and body of Pooley's Chesapeake Bay retriever, Lord Ratliff of Luckymore (a.k.a. "Lucky" or "Rat"). Chambers makes for an interesting performance artist, but his portrayal of the dog really allows him to stretch. He's animated and active all over the stage—peeing, pawing out an email, humping a lady dog, and slyly trying to influence his master's politics. His blocking is well-modulated by director Robert A. O'Connell.
Chesapeake is mostly successful, though the playwright's insistent point-making about the value of art might have been more succinct. It plays through Oct. 18 at the Darkhorse Theater.
Thank you for the write up. We greatly appreciate it! Hope we raise the funds…
Looks like he was a great Artist.......who left his Legacy behind for others to follow.....
Indianapolis (CA-35), not Indiana.
There were plenty of jumps and screams at the severed-head reveal at the Sunday night…
I just...this recap...why did I not know these were here until now?! 4 times on…