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7th House Goes into the Belly of Jonah and the Whale

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Usually, a new musical arrives following years of development and work, often with a few workshops, or with a tryout out of town.

Not so for 7th House Theater. The company's new work, a bluegrass-infused retelling of Jonah and the Whale, has been devised and developed during 2014, and will premiere this weekend at the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie Theater.

See also: Little Shop of Horrors Goes Minimalist to Great Delight

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"We had the space and the slot in the season before we chose the story," says David Darrow, who has co-written the songs in the piece with Blake Thomas. "[The Guthrie] wanted something that was a little interactive and wasn't Christmas-y at all. We ended up wanting to use the Mississippi River, and we wanted to use some of the magic of this time of the year. A faith story seemed kind of right."

"I don't know if we would have chosen to write a new musical if we didn't have the space," adds Cat Brindisi, another 7th House founder and cast member.

Though still very much a new company, 7th House Theater has quickly built up a following based on its highly energized and innovative staging of classic works, such as Hair and Little Shop of Horrors.

That gave them the confidence to tackle a brand-new work. "We learned you don't need three years. You just have to live inside of it for four months," Darrow says.

"Through this process, we developed this ESP sense with each other. This company of five actors and theater makers got on the same wavelength about the show," says company member Grant Sorenson.

The biblical tale doesn't offer much in the way of back story or motivation, but the story can be distilled down to: Man leaves home, falls off ship, gets eaten by a whale, and then escapes.

From there, they rebuilt the story, making changes along the way. "We've taken out the things about him being a prophet, and replaced it with him having a child. That's his obligation," Darrow says.

The Mississippi River setting gave the creators plenty of touchstones to build the look and feel of the production, not to mention the inspiration for the bluegrass-tinged songs.

The accelerated development process meant there wasn't nearly as much "table work" as in most shows, but the company has still done that work -- exploring characters and underlying meanings -- just on their feet in rehearsals.

They've been aided by a pair of directors, Tyler Michaels and Emily King. The duo has not only provided an outside perspective for the performers, but has filled in some skills (movement and dance, for example) that aren't the forte of the 7th House members.

Though the piece has religious themes, "we don't want to turn people off from God or on to God. We are laying out the questions and letting the audience do what they will with the questions," Brindisi says.

IF YOU GO:

Jonah and the Whale Previews Friday, opens Saturday through December 28 Guthrie Theater 818 S. Second St., Minneapolis For tickets and more information, call 612-377-2224 or visit online.