Batavia Players go old school with 20th youth production

Aug 12, 2016

How does a group of teenagers in 2016, iPhones glued to their hands, relate to the gambling scene of 1950s New York City? They couldn’t ask their parents about it, because they weren’t even alive. And if their grandparents were alive, they were too young to understand anything.

So the 40 teenagers who will bring “Guys and Dolls” to the Harvester 56 Theater stage the next two weekends had to do a bit of research and change the way they interact.

“A couple of us have made a pact backstage that when it comes to our cell phones, we try to have them away from the show, unless there’s some kind of family emergency,” said Celeste Brownell, who will play Sister Sarah Brown. “That helps us get into the feeling of having less technology around. That’s one way we have helped each other adapt.”

“Guys and Dolls” is the 20th installment of the Batavia Players’ Summer Youth Theater. Director Pat Burk chose the story that pits the Save-A-Soul Mission against members of an illegal gambling ring because he wanted a classic.

“I wanted to do a traditional musical that had traditional forms of dance, as well as a decent set of vocals for two male and female leads,” Burk said of the musical that debuted on Broadway in 1950 and won five Tony Awards. “I wanted to do something that had not a simple orchestration, but a more understandable orchestration. I wanted something more in vain of old-time, traditional Broadway.”

To help the actors relate to the story, Burk had to explain what craps is and illustrate how different career opportunities for women were.

“Trying to explain what the lifestyles were like at the time is really just an education lesson,” he said. “We showed them how things worked, how women made a living. Back then, women were either housewives or made their living as nurses or teachers or in some nefarious way. There was no beating around the bush.”

Brownell is a veteran of the Summer Youth Theater, having appeared in four of them. She starred as the title character in last year’s production of “Alice in Wonderland.” This time around, she’s putting herself into the head of Brown, a missionary who is trying to convert sinners. But its what happens to Brown when she meets the slick-talking Sky Masterson that Brownell finds most interesting.

“You see two personalities merge into one,” said Brownell, 18. “One is how she is with her love interest. The other is when she doing her job, bringing sinners in and bringing them to God. By the end of the show, you see them mixed together and she works on balancing them.

“I know I’ve had those moments when some boy has gotten in my life and it has made me question everything.”

Playing that love interest is Jonah Bower, a first-timer with the Batavia Players. He’s two years younger than Brownell, but they both attended Byron-Bergen High School last year and established a camaraderie.

“We hung out a lot in school, so it’s a lot easier to be on stage with someone I know,” Bower said.

“He’s two years younger than me, so there is a little awkwardness (being romantic), but I believe we can eliminate that on stage,” Brownell added. “Because on stage, we are not Celeste and Jonah; we are Sarah and Sky.”

The other lead couple of Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide are played by Cameron Bontrager, 15, and Celia Flynn, 17, both of Batavia.

The comic relief role of Nicely Nicely Johnson is filled by William Grimble, who is acting in his sixth Summer Youth Theater show.

Shows are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Aug. 12, 13, 18, 19 and 20 and 2 p.m. Aug. 14 at the theater, 56 Harvester Ave.

Tickets are $15 for adults and $12 for children and are available online at www.showtix4u.com or at the box office.

By MATT KRUEGER, Batavia Daily News