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Actor and LGBTQ activist takes the stage in Virginia Arts Festival production of Sweeney Todd

The Sondheim fan favorite takes the stage at Chrysler Hall tomorrow night.

Coastal Virginia theater-goers may recognize Justin Barnette from his scene stealing appearances on tv shows like Broad City (Comedy Central) or Smash (NBC), singing and dancing on stages across the country as Edna Turnblad in the national tour of Hairspray, Ed Peterson in Fiorello! at New York City Center Encores and Cogsworth in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, or even from his award-winning marketing campaigns to promote LGBTQ+ travel and tourism.
Now he’s in Norfolk to join the Virginia Arts Festival’s orchestral performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning musical Sweeney Todd as part of the Connie & Marc Jacobson Opening Night of its Spring 2024 season.
Barnette plays the title character’s nemesis, Beadle Bamford, a corrupt and pompous public official who aids Judge Turpin in his wicked plot against Sweeney Todd, achieving an equal level of dastardliness himself.  Along the way he gets the chance to perform some of Sondheim’s most haunting melodies and explore the depth of the text’s various theatrical styles.
“Sweeney Todd is about 80% sung-through, and our music director Rob Fisher and stage director Tom Quaintance have really put together an orchestral concert production that showcases the epic nature of the score,” Barnette said.  “Wait until you hear the full power of the entire company unleashed on the opening number.  Right from the first downbeat, the audience will know this one is special.”
The Virginia Arts Festival’s production of Sweeney Todd features more than 100 artists on stage performing together including the starry principal cast of opera and musical theatre pros (including Donna Lynne Champlin and Rod Gilfry), Virginia Symphony Orchestra and Virginia Symphony Orchestra Chorus.
For Barnette, one of the highlights of this production is getting to work with Tony Award-winning actor Chuck Cooper, who plays Judge Turpin.  “I was first introduced to Chuck through his performance of “My Way or the Highway” on the cast album of The Life (for which he won his Tony) and later was fortunate to see him deliver the heartbreaking “Bus Aria” in Caroline, or Change on Broadway.  You must go and look up both of those performances.  He’s an actor of such depth and power, and getting the chance to collaborate with him on creating the villains in this production of Sweeney Todd is a total delight.”
Barnette’s passion for storytelling is evident. “I grew up telling stories as a little boy on my grandmama’s screened in porch, to escape the sweltering heat of the north Georgia summer. Storytelling was as much a part of our daily lives as sweet tea and fried green tomatoes. Those afternoons spinning tales are my favorite childhood memories; they taught me to laugh heartily, to think critically, and ultimately to connect with those around me,” he said.  “And doesn’t the world need more laughter, critical thinking and connection now more than ever?”
And that passion extends beyond the stage and screen to his work as a fierce advocate for LGBTQ+ travel and tourism.  “I believe in the power of LGBTQ+ travel to act as a force for good, combatting repression and homophobia both here at home and abroad.”
“As my friends at IGLTA (the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association) like to say, travel allows us to celebrate our diverse global LGBTQ+ community (and allies) while striving to deepen cross-cultural understanding and create a more inclusive world.”
For the past several years Barnette has been working with South African Tourism to amplify their LGBTQ+ tourism messaging here in the U.S.  South Africa was the first country in the world to enshrine the rights of LGBTQ+ people in their constitution and the fifth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage.  LGBTQ+ South Africans are allowed to change their legal gender markers, adopt children, and serve openly in the military.  “With thrilling safaris and picturesque winelands, plus a rich and dynamic culture, South Africa offers huge variety and opportunity for LGBTQ+ travelers,” Barnette said.  His team’s work was recently honored for travel marketing excellence at the HSMAI Adrian Awards Celebration in the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Marketing category.
When: Saturday April 13 at 7:30 PM
Where: Chrysler Hall, Norfolk

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