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Director Joe Mantello finds meaning in ‘Wicked’ and ‘Human’ nature

Joe Mantello | DAVE KRYSL

Veteran Broadway director/actor Joe Mantello is a very busy man. It’s in his nature.

To begin with, he’s the Tony Award-winning director behind the 2004  production of “Assassins” and the 2003 production of “Take Me Out.” And then there was his turn as the director of the global stage phenomenon otherwise known as “Wicked.” More recently, Mantello helmed the Tony Award-winning best play “The Humans,” which arrives in Chicago Jan. 30 at the Cadillac Palace for a two-week run. And this doesn’t even take into account his hectic acting schedule (more later).

‘The Humans’
When: Jan. 30-Feb. 11
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph
Tickets: $25-$98
Info: broadwayinchicago.com

“The Humans,” a Pulitzer Prize drama finalist written by Stephen Karam, tells the story of the Blakes, a middle-class American family gathering for a Thanksgiving dinner that is anything but run-of-the-mill. Everyone’s anxieties and souls are laid bare over the course of the evening in a rundown New York Chinatown duplex, where the well-choreographed action takes place seamlessly between a two-story set. The cast features Richard Thomas as Erik, Pamela Reed as Deirdre, Daisy Eagan as Brigid, Lauren Klein as Momo, Therese Plaehn as Aimee and Luis Vega as Richard.

Richard Thomas (from left), Therese Plaehn, Pamela Reed, Lauren Klein, Daisy Eagan and Luis Vega in “The Humans.” | Julieta Cervantes

“The play speaks to people on so many levels,” Mantello said. “I remember people waiting at the stage door and saying things like, ‘that’s my mother,’ ‘that’s my sister,’ ‘that’s my dad.’ The characters are so relatable. … The terrors of the Blake family are things many families deal with.”

That two-story set of “The Humans” figures prominently in the story line. As the action unfolds it’s almost a character in its own right. “The biggest challenge for me was the choreography of keeping six people alive and active on a two-story set and orchestrate it in a way that you the audience wouldn’t feel the director’s hand — that intuitively you’d know where to look at all times and you could follow a character for a bit,” Mantello said. “The timing of going up and down the stairs is so crucial. [It was like] putting together an ensemble of people [for Broadway and the national tour] who function as exquisite musicians in a sense.”

Mantello’s acting credits include a Tony-Award nominated turn as Louis in the original Broadway production of “Angels in America,” and the Broadway revival of “The Normal Heart.”  He starred last year opposite Sally Field  in “The Glass Menagerie.”

The Rockford, Ill., native, who directed Sting’s stage musical “The Last Ship” (the show enjoyed its pre-Broadway world premiere in Chicago in 2014), also spent some time at Steppenwolf Theatre, directing its world-premiere production of “Airline Highway” (also in 2014).

“I think the audiences in Chicago are really open. They’re engaged and eager and they don’t feel cynical to me,” Mantello said. ” Sometimes in New York there’s a sense of ‘prove it to me; prove this is worth my time.’  I never felt that in Chicago. Working at Steppenwolf I was really impressed by the conversation they’re in with their audience, and that it’s ongoing. The audience is really invested in the company; they’re rooting for [the troupe]. That doesn’t mean they’re going to love everything [they stage] but both sides are committed to the conversation.”

Currently, Mantello is busy with rehearsals for the February 27 Broadway debut of Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Three Tall Women,” starring Tony winner/Oscar-nominee Laurie Metcalf, two-time Oscar winner Glenda Jackson (returning to Broadway after a quarter-century absence) and Tony nominee Alison Pill. In May, previews begin for his production of the 50th anniversary revival of “The Boys in the Band,” starring Zachary Quinto and Jim Parsons. “I have a concentrated period of work for about five months, and then I take a bunch of time off,” Mantello said with a chuckle. “That’s just the way I work.”

With the global success of “Wicked,” is there anything Mantello (who caught a performance of the show while in Chicago for the recent holidays) would do differently given the chance?

“I look at it now and I would do a few minor things differently,” he says. “When you look at something you did 17 years ago, I see the work of a younger director. I know more now, I have more experiences. It was really the first big musical I directed. Having said all that, it’s really not practical to revisit it. But I’ve always said to the producers if the day comes when it’s getting close to closing and you want to scale it down, I’d love to have a crack at doing a chamber version of it. I’d like to see what that’s like.”