Young cast performing ‘Sweeney Todd’

Anyone who sees the Matthews Playhouse production of “Sweeney Todd,” which runs through Feb. 16, is unlikely to eat a meat pie again without first carefully checking the ingredients.

This dark Stephen Sondheim musical, as suspenseful as it is hilarious, is an unlikely choice for a theatre troupe comprised entirely of high school students, but the 28 South Charlotte area teens who are members of the Matthews Playhouse Senior Musical Company are up to the challenge.

Students audition for the company in August and spend the year working together on voice, acting and dance while they put on a production each semester. (Last semester’s production of “Scrooge” was performed in December.) The students come from 10 area high schools, including Ardrey Kell, Providence, Charlotte Christian, and East Mecklenburg (my two daughters) and also include homeschoolers.

For many of the teens, working with their peers from across town is a highlight of their participation.

“I love how the company includes people from all different schools and ages,” says Helena Herndon, a senior at Myers Park, “It has led me to some of my best friends who I would have not met otherwise.”

Lisa Blanton, 52, who has served as a director and choreographer at Matthews Playhouse for 10 years and is in her fourth year of directing the Senior Production Company, says she picked the Sondheim musical “because the music and themes are very challenging, and the students would not likely have the opportunity to work on a show this difficult in a school setting.”

For these talented high school musical theatre buffs, many of whom plan to major in theatre in college and pursue it as a career, the complexity of the Sweeney Todd music was its appeal.

“It’s the most difficult show I’ve ever done,” says Connor Nielson, a junior at Ardrey Kell High School who is playing the role of Sweeney Todd, “but also the most fun. Stephen Sondheim’s compositions are insanely difficult, but a joy to perform.”

Samual Cole, a ninth grader at Grayfriars Classical Academy, agrees. “Stephen Sondheim is a genius,” he says. “He repeatedly challenges the singer and the music is awesome.”

Hannah Javidi, a senior at Ardrey Kell High School, says that both the show and the role she plays, a flamboyant Italian man who sings baritone, have pushed her so far out of her comfort zone that “I now feel as if my acting ability is limitless.”

That is exactly what Blanton, who has a degree in Theatre and Communications from Wake Forest University, wants to instill in the Senior Musical Company performers. “My goal is to challenge each of the teens involved in company and give them a range of musical theatre opportunities,” she says.

She also wants to challenge the audience, whom she hopes “will be carried away by this dark fantasy and that everyone will appreciate the beauty and complexity of the music and the commitment of the talented young people performing.”

“People should come see Sweeney Todd because it's not the typical Broadway musical,” says Rebecca Davidson, a junior at Weddington High School, “It's creepy and bloody and unlike any other show.”

Katya Lezin is a freelance writer for South Charlotte News. Do you have a story idea for Katya? Email her at bowserwoof@mindspring.com.