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New musical theater head steers U. students in steamy, stormy 'Spring Awakening'

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(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Denny Berry, Head of the Musical Theatre Program, directs the cast of "Spring Awakening," at the University of Utah's Babcock Theatre Thursday March 28, 2013.

By ben Fulton

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Apr 05 2013 11:00PM
Updated Jul 7, 2013 11:31PM

It’s a Monday evening rehearsal for "Spring Awakening" and Denny Berry, newly appointed head of the University of Utah’s Musical Theatre Program, is a long way from being happy with her student cast.

"I want the sense that you have something to say, all right?" Berry tells her charges. "I’m not getting that now. What I’m getting is zombies in the dark!"

Refining lyricist Steven Slater and composer Duncan Sheik’s infamous "alt-musical" into a cohesive whole is a task Berry approaches with classical, no-holds-barred discipline. Every gesture is up for scrutiny. Every note is picked up by her radar.

Berry employs all manner of metaphor and encouragement as she urges her cast to get it all right. Movements "curlicue like a snake." Voices "must be heard the first time." And if it’s not right tonight? "Go home and rehearse it in your kitchen," she tells them.

As the cast tries yet again Berry juts her neck forward to scan every sequence in a scene that will introduce audiences to the young, sexually-frustrated German students living under the thumb of late-19th century parents and teachers.

It’s at least good enough to progress toward the next scene, but not quite good enough for outright celebration. "There are all kinds of possibilities we’ll discover once we get in the space of each scene," she tells them.

From dance to theater • Texas-raised in a military family — father Harry Berry a captain in the U.S. Air Force — it would be all too easy to reduce Berry’s thirst for theater precision to her background.

But sitting down to an interview in her office just outside the U.’s Babcock Theatre, downstairs from the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, Berry dismisses the allegation outright. She instead traces her trademark rigor to a love of dance. And her father’s influence pales next to her own achievements on the international stage, spanning from London to Zurich to Berlin, producing twelve "worldwide productions" of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Hal Prince’s "The Phantom of the Opera." It’s no small step from dance to theater, and choreography to musical theater. Perfecting that progression for her students, Berry said, is another matter.

"I look at these kids now and I can see where the obstacles lie ahead of them," she said. "And I want desperately to say, ‘Try this, or do this!’ But they have to do much of that themselves."

At the same time, Berry said that as new head of the U.’s Musical Theatre program and director of its inaugural production, it’s her job to dispense advice and give orders.

"Layers of complication" • When the U.’s theater department announced Berry’s appointment to forge its new musical theatre program last July, department chair Gage Williams spared no superlatives.

"We had hundreds of applicants for this position," Williams said during the announcement. "Denny clearly stood out from everybody else. She is such a natural teacher, and has a wonderful energy."

Robert Nelson, a professor in the department and member of the search committee that hired Berry, said time has proved the wisdom of bringing her on board. He should know. As a faculty cast member of "Spring Awakening," Nelson plays no less than nine characters under Berry’s direction.

"Actors are used to being cerebral. She helps us get out of our heads and more into our bodies," Nelson said. "She’s not just specific in terms of steps and directions, but also in how she wants the cast to communicate with the audience. We’re lucky to have her."

Cast members in the U.’s Actor Training Program know that as well, even when they fall under her demanding ways. Jessa Brock, who plays Martha, said the upside to being upbraided by Berry for her timid singing is that everyone can rest comfortable in the fact that the production is much cleaner, much earlier in the rehearsal.

"It’s a little terrifying, because she always says what’s on her mind," Brock said. "But she’s not mean. It’s all in service of the show."

The content of Berry’s first production is as spiky, perhaps even confrontational, as her directorial style. Based on a 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind, "Spring Awakening" spares no taboo as it follows a group of teenagers who walk, falter and improvise their way into sexual maturity, sometimes with disastrous results thanks to the ignorance and even outright abuse of their parents. It’s not afraid to admit that teenagers stoke erotic daydreams, and it steers straight into masturbation, budding gay romance, abortion and childhood sexual abuse. Set to the plangent, earthy soundtrack of Sheik’s musical numbers, the multiple Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning musical proved so shocking even for Broadway audiences during its 2006 premiere that it came with its own parents’ guide.

Berry said that while adolescent angst has never been her favorite subject, she’s determined to do the musical justice. Doing it in her own way is vital.

"The parents and adults come in for a lot of blame in this musical, sometimes rightly so," Berry said. "But we also wanted to add more layers of complication that make the adults more sympathetic than in the original. I think we’re finding those moments of delicacy, not just moments that tread over the line of caricature.

"The incredibly stressful lunch break" • Nelson is confident that Berry is finding those crucial notes in a musical some may find difficult to digest.

"People better come to this play with eyes wide open," he said. "But it deals with all these difficult issues with honesty, kindness and hope."

Posted on the door of Berry’s office are placards that speak to the end-goal of every future production she hopes to direct in her new position. One, by cellist Pablo Casals, speaks perhaps louder than the others: "The most perfect technique is that which is not noticed at all."

It’s also through her office door that Berry can hear the honest appraisals of her students as they shutter between the rehearsal stage and time-out.

"Another incredibly stressful lunch break!" she hears one of them say.

Berry takes it in stride, and with pride.

"That’s who I am," she said. "I’ve put people off that I’ve worked with, but I’ve worked at smoothing off the edges so I can have the effect I want. I really want it to be right, and I want it right in my way."

bfulton@sltrib.com

Twitter:@Artsalt

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