Cast ready for challenges of Latté Da's 'Beautiful Thing'

February 21, 2012.By Ed Huyck, City Pages.

For the young leads of Theater Latte Da's Beautiful Thing, there has been a lot to consider. "The writing of the play is so meticulous," says David Darrow, who plays Ste. "Every day, we would run it and add a little more."

"I'm in the same place as David," says Steven Lee Johnson, who plays Jamie. "The play is so rich, so having these first two weeks to really dive in is a treat that a lot of actors don't get. We've had a really nice amount of time to bite into this play."

That work has prepared them to bring the show to life for its opening this weekend. They've not only had to learn the ins and outs of life in a British housing project in the early 1990s, but there have been accents to learn and complex characters to flesh out.

Jonathan Harvey's piece about two gay youth coming of age in the  London Thamesmead projects is dense with issues and characters. Latte Da has also expanded the scope of the music in the play. The original script -- and the film version -- used the recorded music of Cass Elliot and the Mamas and the Papas to help tell the story. Here, it will be sung live by Erin Schwab. The cast also includes Jennifer Blagen, Dan Hopman, and Anna Sundberg.

Director Jeremy Cohen, the producing artistic director at the Playwrights' Center, spent months listening to the Mamas and the Papas and Cass's solo recordings to find the right songs to use in the production.

"It's a really hopeful play, and the music adds levity when some of the scenes get heavy," Darrow says. "It's great to have that music before we dive right back in."

Those issues include the sexual awakening of the two teenagers at the play's center. The work not only delves into their relationship, but also the real and potential bullying the characters face for being out of step with the other youth and the expectations of their families. It's a play with a strong resonance for the Twin Cities right now, Cohen says.

"There is the gay issue and the poverty issue, but once we started rehearsing, it all took a back seat. This is a play about five people trying to understand each other. It makes it a lot more complicated than having a bad guy," Darrow says.

The script mixes in humor with the drama, often with the characters jabbing and digging into each other. "In this culture, it is okay to love somebody and be ripping them apart at the same time," says Johnson.

Bringing the specific culture to the stage has been one of the challenges for the company. Cohen sees that as a way that the cast has bonded, as they've explored and worked together to give the particular rhythms, accents, and world views of the characters life. Though it is only set 20 years in the past, the environment of these characters is quite different than even the one experienced by the current inhabitants of the council estates.

Johnson was able to get some firsthand experience before rehearsals began. "I spent the semester before I started in London, so I visited Thamesmead and also recorded people," he says.

The two performers have settled in the Twin Cities from out of state, with Johnson still studying in the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA program.

"It's a great place for young people to be, because there is so much work," Darrow says.

"There's also diverse work in town," Johnson adds. "There are a lot of different kinds of theater audiences. A lot of work that wouldn't get supported elsewhere gets supported here."