Look up Mari Nelson’s credits on Playbill.com as I did to prepare this piece, and you will be wowed by this actor’s cumulative body of work. From Seattle to Broadway, classics to contemporary, plays to musicals she has tackled them all. I went from being a fan to a friend with Mari a couple years back, when she wowed me with a stunning turn as the Witch in Village Theatre’s INTO THE WOODS and grabbed the opportunity to interview her just days before she opens in ACT and The 5th Avenue’s production of the dark-hued musical URINETOWN which opens Thursday, April 11th at ACT.
David-Edward Hughes: Was getting to do the only musical about a necessary bodily function something that was on your bucket list?
Mari Nelson: I’m going to admit that I didn’t know the show well before starting work on it. I remember when I started to study it, I was sitting in my living room belly laughing so hard that my husband turned to me saying, in his very sardonic way, “well, I guess you like it”. The score is fantastic…the lyrics are so clever…I find the concept is even more timely now than it was when first produced…I am a huge fan.
DEH: Urinetown I have always felt lands somewhere between The Threepenny Opera and Sweeney Todd. Do you agree?
MN: There certainly is a Brechtian approach that this piece leans into and that is often where it’s humor stems from. There are opportunities for moments of hilarity as well as bitterness and poignancy. But it is also very much its own creature I feel. There is a stylization opportunity that is unique to this piece and the score is so layered with musical theater history that those that recognize those moments get a Brechtian jolt out of the story which is unique.
DEH: For those unfamiliar with the show give us a brief look into who Penelope Pennywise is and how you are approaching the role.
MN: I love Penny. I think she’s a bad-ass with an enormous heart. She’s been forced into a position, because of her circumstances, that demands she oppress the people of her community. But she knows it’s a compromise
in order to protect someone she loves. Then she wakes up. I’m approaching this role like any other. By looking for the honest arch of the character and building the beats around it. The demand that is fun and unique in this production is the style that we are finding. I’m enjoying that enormously.
DEH: The show (which premiered in NYC 18 years ago) is described as taking place 20 years into a life-threatening drought. It’s writers seem to have been very prescient, not only with water shortages becoming a really strong reality, but also the characters now seem to be parodies of people who are actually in seats of power in this country. Do your cast mates and director Bill Berry feel that people can still belly laugh at a show that hits so close to home?
MN: Absolutely. We are edging closer and closer to the problems pointed out in this show and that seems to allow the audience a chance to collectively acknowledge our current and future situation. We all laugh and enjoy the humor but under that is the gravity of what we are making fun of. No one forgets that. This show just allows us to come together and look at the mess in front of us while we have the fantastic ride that this musical is. When the curtain falls we have much to discuss. We put it straight onto our collective plate.
DEH: As you know I was really a huge fan of your work as the Witch in the Village Theater production of Into The Woods two seasons back. Now, knowing that you have a very strong background in music, why haven’t we seen you do more musicals locally?
MN: Thank you so much, David! I really hadn’t done any Musical Theater since my New York days. When I moved here 20 years ago I kind of gave up singing because I was offered plays and that just became my focus. Then about 3 years ago Louis Hobson sent me an email. He’s not going to know this but he changed my life. He told me the esteem he held me in as a singer. It shook me to my core. I decided I wanted to bring music back into my life. Things have slowly started to shift a bit since then as I continue to sing more and more. I feel so incredibly grateful.
DEH: I saw in your bio you played Sarah in the hit Broadway revival of GUYS & DOLLS in the 90’s. What was that experience like and also how did you feel about working with Peter Gallagher and Nathan Lane?
MN: That was such an extraordinary experience. I remember my first night as Sarah. I was so incredibly nervous! Peter was such a sweetheart. So supportive. He grabbed me during an under stage crossover and told me how good I was. He made me feel so calm. During the Havana dance sequence I was partnered with the brilliant Gary Chryst. He whispered into my ear as we started the number “I’ve got you”. And he whirled me around that stage with such mastery that it went perfectly.
My husband was watching in the back of the theater with Jerry Zaks our director. He told me afterward that Jerry was dictating notes throughout the show to Lori his assistant but every time I came on stage he stopped, smiled and said “yessss!”. I’ll never forget that night. It was such fun!
DEH: I know your husband and family mean the world to you. How do you balance your private life vs. your career?
MN: Yes. Having two babies within 21 months is what sent me to the West Coast! New York City with two small babies was just too much I felt. I wanted to raise them myself, without nannies etc., and I also wanted them to be around family. My entire family is here in the Seattle area so this is where we landed. My incredible husband gave up his recording and music career to come here as well. He joined Amazon and started a completely new career. He amazes me.
We have found an extraordinary community here in the theater and business communities. And we both have always put our family first. Seattle has been very, very supportive of that. It’s what makes it possible.
DEH: What are your go to leisure time activities?
MN:I love to boat, go to our cabin, hike, ski, paddle board, garden, cook, play with my dogs. We have three wolf-like dogs that take a lot of work but give so much back. They are a treasure.
DEH: Which roles have been your favorites and least favorites?
MN: I suppose this sounds like a cop-out but I love every role I’m playing while I’m playing it. It’s the only way to approach this business for me. It’s such a gift to be able to create in this way that I am simply grateful every day.
DEH: Let’s do a few Inside the Actor’s Studio rapid fire q and a’s.
Name an Actor or Actress whose work inspired you to perform.
Favorite and Least Favorite Food
Love: Pesto Pasta
Favorite and Least Favorite Word
Least Favorite: Selfishness
Favorite and Least Favorite Sounds
Favorite: My children laughing together
Least Favorite: A cash register
Seattle Actor you really wish you could work with for the first time?
Jeff Buckley’s “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” …my husband and I had just met Jeff and we were all working at St. Anns…that song reminds me of so much.
And finally, what would you hope St. Peter would say to you at the Pearly Gates?
You learned all your lessons.
URINETOWN, a co-production between ACT Theatre and The 5th Avenue Theatre is set in a futuristic world in which people must pay for the privilege to urinate. Heroic Bobby Strong leads the fight against this practice in a musical comedy that spoofs musical comedy — and musical drama. Directed by 5th Avenue’s Artistic Director Bill Berry, the cast includes Kurt Beattie, Sarah Rose Davis, Mikko Juan, Mari Nelson, Brandon O’Neill, Andi Alhadeff, Chris Ensweiler, Brian Lange, Leslie Law, Arika Matoba, Matthew Posner, Sarah Russell and Nathaniel Tenenbaum. With a Book by Greg Kotis, Music by Mark Hollman. and Lyrics by Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis, the original Broadway Production was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, taking home those for Best Book and Musical Score. Runs now through May 26 2019 in ACT’s Falls Theatre at 7th & Union, downtown Seattle. For showtimes, reservations and more go to www.acttheatre.org.