It has been a very busy year for director Jonathan Berry, who has long been among the masters of Chicago storefront theater, and who, just less than a year ago, was named to the prestigious position of artistic producer at Steppenwolf Theatre.
‘LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS’
When: Previews begin April 29; opens May 6 and runs through June 26
Where: American Blues Theater at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $19 – $49
A quick recap of Berry’s most recent productions — all quite different, and all stunningly realized — suggests why he is so esteemed. First came the Griffin Theatre production of “Pocatello,” Samuel D. Hunter’s heartbreaking tale of a lonely man trying to survive in the economically depressed Idaho town of the title. Then came Steep Theatre’s production of Laura Wade’s “Posh,” a scorching look at young men of privilege who belong to an elite and rowdy dining club at Oxford University. (Berry just received non-Equity Jeff nominations for both these shows.) Finally there is Abe Koogler’s “Kill Floor” (running through May 1 at American Theater Company), a wrenching look at the attempts of a woman recently released from prison to reestablish herself, and her relationship with her adolescent son.
But now for something completely different — “Little Shop of Horrors” — produced by American Blues Theater. This zany, offbeat 1982 rock musical by composer Alan Menken (who conjured a mix of early 1960s musical styles from doo-wop to Motown), and writer/lyricist Howard Ashman, spins the comic, mock-horror tale of a Skid Row florist shop, where Seymour, a hapless assistant, finds himself in the clutches of a plant that feeds on human blood and flesh.
Berry is collaborating with two extraordinarily gifted musicians: Austin Cook, one of this city’s most brilliant musical directors, and Michael Mahler (the actor, musician and writer of his own musicals, who is starring as Seymour).
“Michael [Mahler] and Dara [Cameron, Mahler’s actress wife, who is playing Seymour’s love interest, Audrey), have tried to get American Blues Theater to do this show for a very long time – many years,” said Berry. “Finally, Gwendolyn Whiteside [the company’s producing artistic director] said okay, and very generously handed me the project. I knew it would be a pretty frantic time for Michael [Mahler], because he and Alan [Schmuckler] were finishing up the score for their own new musical, ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid,’ which just debuted at Minneapolis’ Children’s Theatre Company. And I was finishing work with [Steppenwolf director] Anna D. Shapiro on ‘Mary Page Marlowe.’ But with Austin [Cook] on board as our musical director extraordinaire, I knew we’d be fine. He is a real genius, and a source of such clarity and inspiration. He hears the way we’re talking about a scene in rehearsal and immediately finds a way to put that into his orchestrations.”
Among Berry’s many gifts as a director is his ability to turn his casts into airtight ensembles that seem to breathe as one.
“It’s a lot trickier with a musical than a play, because everything just takes longer, and we only have a three-week rehearsal period,” said the director. “The hardest thing to figure out is how to share the time and space so that both the music and acting get equal attention. My main goal is to make every single moment that opens into a musical number tightly linked to a relationship. With ‘Little Shop’ there also is a great deal that is very funny, but that can easily go into camp, so finding the truth of any situation is crucial.”
Berry, who grew up in the Detroit area, began his career as a singer.
“My mom performed in musicals in a local theater, and I remember seeing her as Queen Guinevere in ‘Camelot,’ with the manager of the local Pizza Hut playing her King Arthur,” Berry recalled. “I was eight years old and recall thinking: ‘That’s the best life ever — singing at night and making pizza by day’.”
A graduate of the University of Michigan, with an MFA from Northwestern University, Berry, now 41, began as an actor with the Griffin Theatre, but “something clicked in me, and I realized I was better at seeing the whole rather than doing that high-wire act that is acting. I guess I like being in control.”
One of things that must be controlled in “Little Shop” is the voracious plant, a major character in its own right.
“There are four of them actually, including a huge one,” said Berry. “And while you can rent the things, the existing models wouldn’t fit into our production. Sarah Ross [who Berry worked with as set designer for the American Blues Theater production of “Side Man”], asked me if she could take a crack at it, and she has been heroic — working with a puppeteer, Matthew Sitz, and with Lorenzo Rush Jr. (the voice of the plant, named Audrey Two). And it’s great to watch those two guys work together, with Lorenzo running lines so Matthew can get the puppet moves into his body.”
Amid all this nonstop activity, Berry did manage to take a break this past December, traveling for something of a busman’s holiday to see theater in London, along with his girlfriend, actress Caroline Neff (starring in “The Flick” at Steppenwolf through May 8). But as soon as “Little Shop” opens, Berry will be back in the director’s chair, helming British playwright Nick Payne’s two-character drama, “Constellation” (May 26 – July 3 at Steppenwolf Upstairs), starring Jon Michael Hill (of CBS’ “Elementary”) and Jessie Fisher (of Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s “Othello” and “Once” on Broadway).