Remembering Andrew Batten

Connor O’Hegarty, Cate McKim, Patrick Brown & Andrew Batten in Lady Windermere’s Fan (Alumnae Theatre, 2007). Photo by Duncan McAllister.

 

It’s now been a week since we lost our friend and theatre colleague—former lawyer, beloved teacher, and talented actor and playwright Andrew Batten. I posted this on Facebook and Twitter last week, and thought I’d repost here:

I met Andrew Batten while working on a show at Alumnae Theatre in the Fall of 2006, when we were rehearsing Lady Windermere’s Fan (Jan – Feb 2007); he played Dumby and I played Cecil Graham. He was a delight to work with; whip-smart, wicked sense of humour and a twinkle in those piercing blue eyes. And he looked damn good in white tie and tails.

He had so much love around him and his light will be missed. Honoured and happy to be acting in the upcoming production of his play The Sad Blisters (April 12-27 at The Commons). This one’s for you and your love Debbie, Andrew.

Bloody good musical macabredy fun in Alexander Showcase Theatre’s Sweeney Todd

ST_Web_Banner-685x269From the dark, seedy nooks and alleyways of the foggy set, and creepy opening organ music to its tragic ending, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street takes us from pathos to camp and back again in this story of one man’s singular and bloody drive for revenge gone horribly astray.

With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler and adapted by Christopher Bond, this particular trip to the dark side of Fleet Street comes courtesy of the folks at Alexander Showcase Theatre (ASL), directed by Vincenzo Sestito, with music direction by Gwyneth Sestito and choreography by Jaime Robertson – running now at the Al Green Theatre. ASL’s Sweeney Todd features a cast of thousands, with a fine and energetic ensemble, and an outstanding core cast that includes some familiar faces and voices.

Sweeney Todd - Patrick & Sara
Patrick Brown & Sara Stahmer in Sweeney Todd – photo by John Meadows

As the titular infamous barber, Patrick Brown (back with a fright wig hair style last seen when he played the title role in ASL’s Young Frankenstein) gives a compelling portrayal of a man both frozen with grief and seething with rage, the layers of heartbreak and guilt showing beneath the bitterness and merciless sense of vengeance (so aptly illustrated in his ode to his collection of razors “My Friends”). As Todd’s landlady and partner in crime Mrs. Lovett, Sara Stahmer bursts onto the stage, buxom, raucous and larger than life, taking the piss out of herself and her pie shop as she shouts from the rooftops about “The Worst Pies in London.” A woman with secrets and desperately in love with Todd, she’ll do anything to keep him with her as their individual needs and desires marry into an unspeakable arrangement.

Seth Mukamal is diabolically chilly and repugnant as the tyrannical and corrupt Judge Turpin, a covetous and nasty man with a hint of the romantic (“Pretty Women,” an ironic and suspenseful duet with Todd). Jeremy John Yorga gives a great turn as Turpin’s right hand man Beadle Bamford, a sinister soul with a flair for flattery and a taste for quaint old tunes (“Parlour Songs” with Mrs. Lovett and Tobias). As the secret, put-upon young lovers Anthony and Johanna, Joshua Wales and Alexandra Reed have adorable chemistry. Reed’s beautiful crystalline voice in “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” is the essence of Johanna’s innocence and longing, and Wales’ soaring, heart-felt “Johanna” offers a glimmer of hope for these bright-eyed young people – brief moments of optimism in an otherwise hopeless and harsh world. Nina Mason is endearingly cocky as the boy Tobias, a seasoned salesman and showman despite his youth – and a lad with a crush, intent on being Mrs. Lovett’s protector (“Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” and “Not While I’m Around”). As Todd’s professional rival, the pompous huckster Adolfo Pirelli, Darrell Hicks gives us a sly and slick charlatan with an amazing set of operatic pipes. And as the mysterious Beggar Woman, Sharon Zehavi gives a performance that is both bawdy fun and poignantly heartbreaking, skulking in the shadows, haunted by the vague memory of a former life (“Ah Miss” and “Wait”).

With shouts to set designers Peter Thorman (also Head Builder) and Beth Roher (also Head Scenic Artist), and costume designer Cheryl Lee for their evocative period creations. And to the ASL orchestra, a small but mighty force of fine musicians.

ASL’s Sweeney Todd is some bloody good musical macabredy fun with an excellent cast. Get on over to the Al Green Theatre for some darkly funny, thrilling good times.

Sweeney Todd continues at the Al Green Theatre until May 10; you can purchase advance tix online here.

An early holiday treat – Alexander Showcase Theatre’s A Christmas Carol

a xmas carolA wonderful evening of fun and festivity at the Papermill Theatre last night at Alexander Showcase Theatre’s (AST) opening night of their adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a special wine and dine gala that featured a very tasty and highly digestible pre-show Christmas dinner. Directed by Vincenzo Sestito, who adapted the script with Gwyneth Sestito, this version of the holiday favourite is set as a 1940s radio play within a play, much like AST’s 2012 production of It’s A Wonderful Life.

The cast does an amazing job of juggling multiple characters, including playing actors who are playing characters in a radio play of A Christmas Carol. Seth Mukamal’s (as actor Felix Underhill) Scrooge would do Alistair Sim proud, a remarkable balance of curmudgeon and lost boy. Andrea Brown (as actor Amelia Copeland) and Matthew Payne (as actor Allan Flynn) do a great job as the co-narrators, with Payne giving a jolly performance as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, and Brown hilarious as charwoman Mrs. Dilbur, and supportive and no-nonsense as Mrs. Cratchit. The two have some especially lovely moments behind the scenes, as we witness Copeland and Flynn’s burgeoning romance. Tayves Fiddis (as actor Jack Smythe) does a nice job playing Cratchit and young Scrooge, and Michelle Berube is a flirty firecracker as the talented young Foley Artist Jayne Whitley. As their respective actor characters, these two share some adorable offstage (and on) flirtation, which doesn’t get past the watchful eye of Head Foley Artist Beulah Higgins, played with a good-natured den mother vibe by Deborah Mills.

David McEachern’s beautiful bass baritone is perfect for the Announcer, and goes from jovial to menacing as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Steve Kyriacopoulos does a great comic turn as the put-upon Station Manager Gordon Smithers, and gives us a kind and ethereal Ghost of Christmas Past. Nice work from James Phelan, as the morose and penitent Ghost of Jacob Marley, and the comically opportunistic Undertaker; and Eugene Fong-Dere is both jovial and funny as the chain smoking actor Johnny Choi, who plays Mr. Fezziwig, among others. Nina Mason (young Scrooge’s sweetheart Belle, the Laundress, and the Boy who Scrooge sends to purchase the goose for the Cratchits) and Anne-Marie Krytiuk (Scrooge’s sister Fan, Cratchit’s kids Martha and Peter) show some very impressive chops with a wide variety of characterizations, both male and female. And young Michael Speciale is a puckish little rascal and a fine performer as actor Mitchell Rooney, who plays Tiny Tim, among others.

The charm of this adaptation lies in the nostalgic radio play production setting, with its period music and holiday tunes, sound effects work (Mills and Berube do a stand-up job with the equipment – and the contraption Berube uses to create the audio representation of the Ghost of Christmas Future is eerily fascinating) – and, especially, the behind-the-scenes rapport of the radio play actors, with all the collegial teasing, hamming it up, romantic intrigue and general shenanigans one would expect from a group of actors.
Adding to the fun of the production is a series of live 1940s-style jingles for the show’s sponsors, with music and lyrics (lyrics by Gwyneth Sestito for The Pilot Tavern) by Robby Burko, who plays the radio show’s pianist, and belted out in true Andrews Sisters style by Brown, Krytiuk and Mason.

Additional music for the opening performance was supplied by special guests, including Supertonic Quartet, who delighted the crowd with some tunes during dinner, as well as a guest number during a music break in the play (they’ll be returning on Nov 29 & Dec 7). And Supertonic member Patrick Brown and cast member Nina Mason (who played the actors playing George and Mary Bailey in AST’s production of It’s A Wonderful Life) performed a fabulous duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” during the show’s music break. Katey Morley is set to perform at the Dec 6 show.

Think it’s too early for a holiday treat? Bah, humbug! Alexander Showcase Theatre’s A Christmas Carol is a delightful way to kick off the holiday season – for kids of all ages.

A Christmas Carol continues its run at the Papermill Theatre until Dec 7. Up next for AST: Sweeney Todd at Al Green Theatre (April 30 – May 10, 2015).

xmas cover photo girls

The Crucible – a moving & haunting cautionary tale

top-bannerTC32-685x269crucible n.1 a container in which metals are heated 2 a severe test or trial (Oxford Canadian Dictionary)

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a drama set during the Salem witch trials of the late 1600s – and a metaphor for the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, when the play was written – is a period piece that maintains its relevance today. The damaging “with us or against us” mentality still rings chillingly true.

Alexander Showcase Theatre (AST) is currently running a moving and haunting production on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage, directed by Vincenzo Sestito. Beneath the social turmoil is a story of personal lies, love and redemption, as the lives of the townspeople are turned upside down by the vengeful machinations of a jealous, grasping young woman. Thanks to her, the local clergy cry “witch” – and the full weight of the witch trials comes down upon their heads.

As a container, the crucible remains unchanged during the process of burning the object inside it. While this is also true of the legal arm of this trial, the same cannot be said of the religious arm. Wielding religious and legal power – and fear – the black and white thinking that is dangerous to any who stand in its path leaves those in ultimate power unmoved.

The Crucible features a fine cast, with some familiar faces from previous AST productions. Stand-outs include Patrick and Andrea Brown, the real-life husband and wife playing John and Elizabeth Proctor. Both give strong, layered performances as an estranged couple struggling to move past John’s extramarital sin to face an even more horrific situation when Elizabeth is accused of witchcraft. The two have some lovely domestic and tender moments as the Proctors fight for their marriage and, ultimately, their lives, when protecting each other becomes foremost in their minds. Sharon Zehavi is striking and sensual as Abigail Williams, the original mean girl, troubled and sly – and merciless in her pursuit of vengeance and her former lover, John Proctor. This is a huge departure from Zehavi’s previous AST role as the wide-eyed rookie actress in the radio play version of It’s A Wonderful Life; she is also part of the graphic design team on the production poster for The Crucible.

Seth Mukamal does an excellent job with Reverend Parris, providing a nice arc to the church leader’s decent from pompous, materialistic cleric to the damaged, shell-shocked man we see during the trials. Matt Jensen, as Reverend Hale, gives a nicely rounded performance of the young, intelligent and energetic clergyman turned disillusioned and desperate when his eyes are pried open to the willful blindness of the Puritan-driven judiciary, looking to find witches no matter what the cost. Shouts to Nina Mason, who gives us a Mary Warren that is a silly girl and a follower, but just really wants to fit in and be somebody; to Doug McLauchlan as the simple, litigious Giles Corey, who provides some much needed comic relief; and to Arnie Zweig, who brings a natural officiousness to the imperious Deputy-Governor Danforth.

Kudos to an excellent design team: Angus Barlow (sound),  Chris Humphrey (lighting), Deborah Mills (props), Beth Roher (set), Gwyneth Sestito (costumes) and Jo-Anne Wurster (original music composition). The minimal wooden furniture, everyday objects and period costumes set us firmly in time and place, while the back-lit scrim painted with black trees, coupled with lanterns emerging from the darkness, and music and snatches of hymns, add to the eerie transformation of a lovely town set aflame by greed and religion running rampantly astray.

Seeing The Crucible is a grim reminder of the dangers of all or nothing thinking – especially when used as a tool of fear and control by an unchecked political leadership.

Alexander Showcase Theatre’s production of The Crucible runs until November 24.

Department of Corrections: Due to an error in the Production Team section of the program, the set designer was incorrectly identified here in the original post as Marc Davies. Beth Roher was the set designer for this production; this has been corrected.