This is Mark Benninghofen’s stage.
At the end of a long hallway in the Minneapolis Lumber Exchange building, Benninghofen welcomes a visitor to Shout Creative — his voice-over and advertising business. The whole operation is in an office so small that Benninghofen can’t wheel his big executive chair through the narrow aisle so he can get out from behind his “banker’s desk.”
No, problem. He hoists the chair — one of those big, comfy commander models — and carries it to a patch of open floor next to this reporter. He flashes a big, toothy smile and signals he’s ready — ready to put on the Mark Benninghofen show.
And it is a great show. Over 90 minutes, Benninghofen will drop names like confetti, dish juicy off-the-record gossip, quote chunks of Shakespeare, jump up to mimic the characters that populate his shaggy dog stories about growing up outside Chicago, bombing at his first musical tryout in New York, doing television in L.A., working with Tony Kushner and sitting nervously in the Ritz Theater lobby in Minneapolis waiting to hear how his audition went for the epic title role of “Sweeney Todd.”
Spoiler alert on that last one: They liked him and Benninghofen will perform his first musical theater role in Theater Latté Da’s production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” that opens Saturday.
Sweeney Todd? Nothing like jumping into the deep end of the pool.
“This is a real step-up moment for me,” he said. “ ‘Sweeney Todd’ is a play that is sung, that’s how I look at it. If I can get through the singing, I know I can tell the story.”
On stage, Benninghofen has a natural, roguish charm and a busy, kinetic energy — meticulous and studied in gesture and posture. His voice is supple, yet in its natural timbre it cuts like a steak knife.
He’s no different on his small stage of real life.
“Ronnie Wood!” he growls with his best Irish accent. “You walk out of the dressing room and there’s Ronnie Wood! And he’s saying, ‘Come here, mate.’ And he grabs you and says ‘That was [expletive] awesome.’ ”
Benninghofen wheels his chair over and sticks his mug in your face, marveling that the Rolling Stones guitarist came to a performance of Irish classic “Juno and the Paycock” at the Guthrie when the band was in town in June. He jumps from his chair and measures Wood with a hand at his shoulder.
“He’s just this little guy, but there he is, it’s him. He was over the moon.”
Benninghofen sits back down and grabs your elbow — he’s a master of the little touch on the knee, the tap on the thigh, the grab on the elbow as though these are stage directions, for emphasis.
“You just don’t think you’re going to meet a Rolling Stone.”
Rolling with the punches
Benninghofen tasted early success in New York and came to Minneapolis for the tail end of the Liviu Ciulei era at the Guthrie in 1984. He got good notices but Garland Wright called him in shortly after becoming artistic director in 1985.
“I remember, I sat there and he looked at me. He was so mystical,” Benninghofen said, putting his hand on his chin and holding an index finger alongside his nose in a classic Garland pose. “And he just said, ‘Hmmmmm, no.’ ”
So the young actor had to make his bread in other places and caught the attention of radio advertising genius Craig Wiese.
“In those days, if Craig stamped you on the forehead and said you were good, you worked,” he said.
This began a lucrative career in commercial work and the formation of Shout Creative, which is wedged cheek by jowl into Audio Ruckus recording studio. He’s done well.
Benninghofen stretched his horizons to Los Angeles and in the late 1990s he scored a regular role in “Movie Stars,” a sitcom on the WB network starring Harry Hamlin and Jennifer Grant (“Cary Grant’s daughter,” he reminds you).
It was a lot of fun, he said, but the show only lasted a couple of years and in 2000, he and his wife, Jill, started shifting back to Minneapolis, where they had kept their home. Raising a family here appealed more than “the flats of Burbank.”
‘Tyrone’ was his ticket back
Benninghofen says it was “Tyrone and Ralph,” a play by Jeffrey Hatcher about Guthrie and Rapson, that revived his Twin Cities stage career in 2008.
Joe Dowling caught the show, at the History Theatre in St. Paul, and two weeks after closing, Benninghofen sent an e-mail to John Miller-Stephany, Dowling’s associate.
“It just said, ‘Can I come play at your house?’ ” Benninghofen recalls.
He was asked to audition for what would be a high-profile project: a new Tony Kushner play, “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism With a Key to the Scriptures.”
Benninghofen stands and imitates Dowling — for whom he has sincere great affection — walking to the table on the first day of the project.
“Joe goes over and flips open his folder and says, ‘Where’s my [expletive] script?’ ” Benninghofen said, now able to laugh at the surreal occasion.
Kushner, of course, had no script at that time.
“He had a finger painting of a play in his mind,” Benninghofen said. “That first day, we had a four-hour conversation about dockworkers, Red Hook, lesbians, capitalism.”
The play famously opened a week late at the Guthrie in the spring of 2008, with Kushner rewriting furiously up through previews.
“It was a terrifying adventure but it energized the place,” said Benninghofen, who portrayed the estranged husband of a character played by actor Linda Emond, a Kushner confidante.
There were loud whispers in the local theater community at the time that members of the New York entourage didn’t treat the local actors very well. Benninghofen won’t tell anything on the record but he did say the experience taught him a lesson: “If you’re ever working in a play with other ‘people,’ you have to find a level playing field.”
Actor Sally Wingert, who plays Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd,” said Benninghofen practices what he preaches.
“There’s not a speck of diva about him,” Wingert said. “He goes out of his way to get to know everybody.”
Since “The Intelligent Homosexual,” Benninghofen has kept busy at the Guthrie (“Appomattox,” “Born Yesterday,” “Juno”), Park Square (“Shooting Star” with Wingert), tiny Dark and Stormy Productions and recently in the film “The Public Domain.”
He often plays drunks (“I love playing drunks and apparently I’m good at it”) and for the film he had to play a dissipated ad executive caught in a compromising position, in bra and panties, with a mistress.
“I asked [director] Pat Coyle, ‘Does he have to be this bad?’ ” Benninghofen said, laughing at the memory. “There’s just no good way to shoot that scene. You get into your bra and panties and … ”
Early ‘Sweeney’ fan
Benninghofen and his mother saw Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury in the Broadway production and after he picked his chin up out of his lap, he bought a cassette and played it and played it.
In fact, he and Jill had “Nothing’s Going to Harm You” performed at their wedding, 19 years ago.
It makes sense, then, that Benninghofen sent Wingert a note when he read in the paper that she was going to play Mrs. Lovett in Latté Da’s production. Wingert told him to call director Peter Rothstein.
“He said ‘I’ve never done a musical audition,’ so I set up some time for him to work alone with Denise [Prosek, music director],” Rothstein said. “It’s not surprising that he’s got great tone. He knows his instrument and he has the top and the bottom of the register.”
Rothstein believes that the Stephen Sondheim classic has great malleability. His cast has a range of voices, from operatic to young and cultured to penetrating.
“It’s not going to be an operatic ‘Sweeney,’ ” Rothstein said. “It’s been done in many styles.”
Wingert sounds confident of Benninghofen’s ability to sing the role.
“He has got lungs the size of Texas,” she said. “He’s got all of that skill set. When we were growing up, you got funneled into straight plays or musicals. We went straight plays.”
Benninghofen certainly knows he will need to sing, a challenge that scares and excites him.
He also knows, though, that he must understand the character and toward the end of our interview, he leans his head back in his chair and recites inspiration from the misshapen Gloucester, who will become Richard III. A midlevel administrator ruined Sweeney Todd’s life, robbed him of joy and softness and good. So, too, Richard confronted his fate:
“And am I then a man to be beloved? O monstrous fault to harbor such a thought.”
Benninghofen goes on to quote the entire speech — from Henry VI, Part 3 — savoring the words of Richard’s cold determination to destroy everything in his path.
He didn’t miss a word.
What a performance.