Gay Actors Engaged (and Engaged in NSMT’s "A Christmas Carol")
Out actors Ryan Bates and Tommy Labanaris add their love story to the mistletoe spirit of North Shore Music Theatre’s magical A Christmas Carol.
The holiday favorite (opening December 7) has spelled out the joy of the season for more than a million people since it was initially staged at the Beverly Playhouse in 1989. Based on the Charles Dickens’ classic story, the tale revolves around curmudgeon miser Scrooge who opens his heart to humanity after visits from three ghosts. The story that takes place in Victorian London was given a musical adaptation by former NSMT artistic director Jon Kimbell and members of the NSMT staff.
NSMT current artistic director Bill Hanney continues staging the now legendary production about the true meaning of Christmas which has become even more exciting every year as flying ghosts and other dazzling special effects are added to the show.
NSMT’s "A Christmas Carol" has also become a holiday tradition for Bates and Labanaris, a couple engaged to be married. EDGE interviewed the actors during a rehearsal break. Ryan, who plays the Narrator in the show, offers the couple’s responses in the following Q and A.
EDGE: Where did the two of you meet and under what circumstances, and did you meet ’cute’ as Hollywood puts it?
Ryan Bates: In 2007, I (Ryan) had just graduated from NYU’s Tisch School (CAP21 Conservatory). I had booked a summer stock season at Bristol Valley Theater in Upstate NY. Tommy was already performing in a musical review called ’All Night Strut.’ My first night there I went to see the show’s opening. After the show, I congratulated him in the lobby and introduced myself. He thought I was a local with a serious affinity for the theater as I hung around until the entire audience left. He later recognized me by the headshot that had been up in the Artistic Director’s office.
That summer we performed together in ’Lend Me a Tenor’ and ’Man of La Mancha.’ Aside from work, we took a ton of hikes up through Grimes Glen, shared several beers at the local Tavern, went stargazing, and fell in love. I guess you can say that we met ’cute.’
EDGE: Have you made your wedding plans?
Ryan Bates: We had made some very large plans for our wedding. We set a date and place, started the process, ordered customized cocktail napkins and matchbooks with 10-13-13 printed on them. Hundreds of them. But after a lot of thought, we decided to look for a home instead. We will actually be closing on our new house in Rhode Island during the run of ’A Christmas Carol.’ We are thinking now of getting hitched sooner than fall.
EDGE: How were you able to wrangle working together at Christmas?
Ryan Bates: ’A Christmas Carol’ marks the 9th show that we have worked together on at different theaters around New England. In 2009 when NSMT was dark, former Artistic Director, Jon Kimball brought the show up to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. That is where we first performed these tracks. In 2010, I (Ryan) had the privilege of performing the role in the round at the newly reopened NSMT. Aware of our relationship and Tommy’s previous experience in the role of Old Joe, we were made an offer to work together in 2011 and again this year. We couldn’t be more excited to be back. In the same way that this show has become a holiday tradition for families all over Massachusetts, it has become that for us and our families as well. Not only do we get to spend the holidays in New England, but we get reunited with all of the returning cast members each year.
EDGE: ’A Christmas Carol’ is a beloved production at North Shore. You’ve both worked at North Shore previously, was it in this show?
Ryan Bates: Yes. This is my third year and Tommy’s second with the show. We feel the same way audiences do about this show. It is very dear to our hearts. It’s definitely not just another show. We never feel like we are going to ’work.’
EDGE: What’s fun about doing this show?
Ryan Bates: The Pyrotechnics! We get to experience the joy of the season eight times a week up until Christmas Eve! This adaptation by Jon Kimball has absolutely become my favorite interpretation of this classic story. I sat in the audience last night watching a rehearsal of the Act I finale and was moved to tears by the sights and sounds. I never tire of it. There is truly something for everyone.
Tommy Labanaris: Doing the show in the round! The spirit of Christmas is literally all around you at North Shore. I love that the show is true to the period but incorporates modern technical elements which keep it unexpected and fun!
Working with local actors
EDGE: There are some local favorites who are accomplished actors in the show, I’m thinking of Leigh Barrett, Cheryl McMahon and George Dvorsky off the top of my head. What do you as younger actors learn from these seasoned performers?
Ryan Bates: They are very seasoned performers and it is an honor to share the stage with all of them! They bring an energy and playfulness to rehearsals and shows that is always new and exciting but anchor the show in their talent and experience. Not only is Leigh a brilliant singer and actress, but she gives the best opening night massages and has an amazing heart. George is larger-than-life as Christmas Present but honest and moving when playing a Gentleman. He keeps everyone laughing. I believe Cheryl has been with the show for 19 years. Her performances are like she is doing it for the first time. Off stage, she is such a joy to sit and speak with about anything that’s on your mind. She wants nothing but good things for everyone she knows. We continue to learn new things about the work, business, and life every day by getting to be around them.
EDGE: I understand that Charles Dickens’ great grandson visited a rehearsal and gave a one man show for the cast. How did this experience enhance the show for you?
Ryan Bates: Unfortunately, Tommy and I were unable to make that performance because of a prior engagement. We did get to listen to him briefly at the end of our designer run. It was interesting to find out that Charles Dickens ultimately wanted to be an actor himself. Our fellow cast mates that did make Gerald Dickens’s one-man show of ’A Christmas Carol,’ said the performance was wonderful. His transitions between characters was apparently brilliant.
EDGE: Ryan and Tommy, what growing up led you to do theater professionally? Where did you grow up?
Ryan Bates: I grew up in Rhode Island. Each summer, I went to theater camp. The company is now called, ’Rhode Island Youth Theatre.’ That was my first experience with performing. In high school, I worked the front of house at ’Theatre by the Sea,’ in Matunuck, RI and would watch every show. Interestingly, that is another one of producer, Bill Hanney’s theatrical ventures. It was during that time that I decided this is what I wanted to do.
Tommy Labanaris: I grew up in Dover, New Hampshire. When I was in elementary school, I played one of the children in the ￢’Pied Piper.’ The only thing I was required to do was to cry when my lollipop was snatched away by one of the rats. I nailed it! I began college as a Biology major at UNH but soon changed to theater when I realized that was where my passion lay.
EDGE: What niche if any are you looking to fill in your careers? Musical theater, drama? Ryan, talk a little bit about ￢ ’Reefer Madness,’ ’Grand Hotel,’ and ’The Goddess Wheel.’ And Tommy, what did the Japanese make of ’Rent?’
Ryan Bates: I’d love to do it all. ’Reefer Madness’ was a blast to do in New York. It is a satire of the 1936 cult movie classic. It was the second time the show had been produced in the City. Unfortunately, the first time it opened just days after September 11th. ’The Goddess Wheel’ was the first production ever. The show was written by the creator of ’Hair,’ Galt MacDermot. It was an honor to meet him and work on the production.
Tommy Labanaris: Musicals, farces, and comedies are my favorite. I think my strengths lie in physical comedy. Since we are moving from New York City to New England permanently I plan on auditioning for the theaters around this area. In Japan, audiences loved ’Rent.’ When I was there the film version had just been released. The whole show was sung in English with Japanese Superscripts on the proscenium. It was an amazing experience.
The musical A Christmas Carol opens December 7, 2012 for 12 performances (through December 23, 2012) at Bill Hanney￢ﾀﾙs North Shore Music Theatre, 62 Dunham Rd. (Rte. 128, exit 19) in Beverly. For more info and tickets you can phone the box office (978) 232-7200 or go on-line at the North Shore Music Theatre website.