Stage professional Denny Berry to head U. musical theater program
Theater • Denny Berry brings international perspective and professional contacts to emerging curriculum.
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Denny Berry's career has taken her from Berlin, where she helped conceive an acrobatic version of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, to Austin, Tex., where she's currently at work on a musical version of D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.

This fall, the director, choreographer and writer will settle down to head the University of Utah theater department's fresh-minted musical theater program. Settle down, but not slow down.

"Our program is very 'hands on,' very much a conservatory program,'" Berry wrote in an email describing the tone she'll set for the U.' program.

The musical theater component of the department has been led by an interim director since it resurrected in 2010. A musical theater degree had been offered since the early 1970s, said department chair Gage Williams, but was discontinued in 1984 due to budget cuts.

Berry's appointment, announced late last month after a search drew more than 60 applicants, fortifies the department's official commitment to training students in singing, dancing and acting.

The degree program has more than 60 students enrolled, some of whom perform in the professional musical theater productions of Pioneer Theatre Company. The program is the second of its kind in the state, with only Weber State University offering a musical theater program of study for theater majors.

"Our state is full of talented singers and dancers," Williams said, noting that reality TV programs such as "So You Think You Can Dance?" regularly hold auditions in Salt Lake City.

"[Students] have wanted a musical theater program for years," Williams said. "I've been here for 18 years. Every year people have asked me when we're bringing the program back."

Berry pointed to the explosion of new technology evidenced in musicals such as "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," coupled with the recent success of more simple musicals stressing story over spectacle. She thinks that means that musical theater has entered a dynamic phase of innovation.

She encouraged University of Utah students planning on embarking on her program's new curriculum to plan to be forever on their toes if they want to find success in the field.

"We are offering a well-rounded curriculum based on the skills I know are required in an actor to work n the business of the musical theater," Berry said. "We are offering the student the opportunity to discover that potential, hone it into a viable craft and practice to gain the confidence that will give him or her an edge when they reach the working world."

Berry's experience reaches deep into professional and Broadway theater. She was Broadway dance captain, production dance supervisor and associate choreographer under director Hal Prince for Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera." Her work with the touring musical took her to Salt Lake City several times, where the Wasatch Mountain range reminded her of the five years she lived in Switzerland.

In addition to her life's work in theater Berry, an Army brat who grew up mostly in Austin, Tex., is an avid gardener certified in landscape design.

One of her first projects as new head of the department's musical theatre program will be directing a production of "Spring Awakening." Students will perform the popular musical April 12-28.

"I'm still studying the script and the score," Berry said. "It's amazing that the original, turn-of-the-century script about the almost untouchable theme of awakening youth is still so relevant."

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For more information about the University of Utah theater program, or Babcock Theatre productions, visit http://www.theatre.utah.edu.