They were a bunch of young, talented kids who wanted to put on a show. They did, they loved it and decided to keep putting on shows. 7th House Theater, formed in 2013, opens its fourth production Friday in the Guthrie Studio. They’re going with something original this time, a new musical called “Jonah and the Whale,” based loosely on the story of a prophet in ancient Israel.
“We’re still finding our way, who we are,” said David Darrow, who plays Jonah and was among the principal instigators of this new troupe. “This is the first time that we’ve used a director other than Cat’s dad.”
Cat’s dad is Michael Brindisi, artistic director of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. He was the guiding light for 7th House’s maiden voyage with “Hair” in the summer of 2013. Darrow subsequently directed a small production and there was no director for “Little Shop of Horrors” earlier this year. Tyler Michaels and Emily King are codirecting “Jonah.”
The core group that produced and performed in “Hair” is still with 7th House. Darrow and Cat Brindisi got the ball rolling along with Derek Prestly, Grant Sorenson and Matt Riehle — all of whom are in “Jonah.” Michaels would have liked to be on stage but he’s occupied downstairs at the Guthrie, in “A Christmas Carol.” King is a frequent chorine at Chanhassen and choreographed “Hair.” Their strength is musical theater, staged with minimal fuss and high performance values. Robert Frost is the group’s musical director.
“Jonah” came about because Lauren Ignaut, who programs the Guthrie Studio, had attended a couple of 7th House shows and asked if they could make something to run in December that was “not Christmassy,” said Darrow. The collective pushed ahead with a notion that they would employ the dark magic of the solstice season and engage questions of faith but avoid Christmas.
Flowing with the river
The Guthrie’s proximity to the Mississippi River figured in the decision to do something with Jonah. The prophet is most famous for being swallowed by a fish after running away from his duty, so 7th House got into a nautical mood.
The “idea” of the biblical Jonah figures more in the play than the actual details of the story. That’s partly because Jonah is the object in his own story, rather than the subject.
“If you take God out of the story, it’s hard to say why Jonah does anything,” said writer Tyler Mills.
He makes a decent point. Jonah is driven by forces outside himself — a bit player best known not for what he does but for the three days he sits things out in the belly of the fish. Many folks forget that he did get out of that mess and went about his mission. Even then, however, he argued with God after the population of Nineveh was spared from destruction.
What a whiner.
A regular guy
Darrow and Mills said they instead wanted to fashion a journey of personal faith. The character in Mills’ script lives along the river, near New Orleans, in the 1920s. He’s a man who is dissatisfied with himself and wounded by events in his life. A traumatic moment causes him to lose his faith and run away from his home.
“He’s an invention of ours,” said Darrow.
Darrow and Blake Thomas, a musician and songwriter who has worked with Yellow Tree Theatre in the Twin Cities, have put together 14 songs for the show. They worked independently of each other, mostly, but both had an idea of the era and location of the story. They describe the music as melodically modern Americana. It’s “sweetgrass,” Thomas said, with the instruments and temperament of bluegrass but the anthemic melody of modern pop.
“The river defined the feel of the music,” Darrow said.
Michaels said he’s enjoying being on the other side of the footlights.
“Directing is an interest of mine,” said the actor, who is finishing a rather extraordinary year on Twin Cities stages. “We’re curators [he and King] of the ideas that come up, and because we’re the outside eye we try to give the show a larger-than-life feeling.”