Mairi Babb is a leading lady of the Winnipeg stage, having starred in recent years in a dozen plays including as Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Janet in The Rocky Horror Show and the title character in Educating Rita.
These days she is appearing in the highly anticipated Canadian première of War Horse, currently in previews ahead of a Feb. 28 opening at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre. Although Babb is often seen in costume dramas, frequently singing, in this case she is playing a young horse, whose only vocal requirement is the odd snort.
"I don't speak at all," says Babb, during a telephone interview. "It's all movement and puppetry.
"I also play mud. Really. We're in this burlap netting and attach to the horses's leg to slow them down."
Babb is one of several Winnipeg stage products who are making dramatic moves in their careers. Grant Park High School graduate Jaz Sealey is going to Broadway with the Stratford Festival cast of Jesus Christ Superstar, which also includes local Broadway veteran Jeremy Kushnier. Local composer and fringe festival favourite Joseph Aragon is getting his first professional production when a new high-profile Toronto theatre company debuts next October with his musical Bloodless: The Trial of Burke and Hare.
War Horse, like the Steven Spielberg Oscar-nominated film adaptation, tells the story of the First World War through the eyes of a horse, Joey, who is sold to a cavalry division and shipped off to France. The horses are portrayed with life-size puppets animated by three actors, one as the head and the others as the heart and hind.
"It's incredibly challenging," says Babb, herself an accomplished equestrian. "We have been like a foal. We couldn't walk at first but we are gamboling all over the place now.
"I told my director that when I go onstage in Pride and Prejudice (RMTC, 2008) I have over 400 lines. That's my comfort zone, and now I'm doing things I've never done before and have to use my skills in an entirely different manner."
The Mirvish Productions presentation of War Horse is an open-ended run in which the 35-member cast is contracted to the end of the year. It's Babb's first blockbuster but she's not sure what her involvement will do for her career.
"It's definitely a highlight but I don't expect anyone to watch the show and go, 'Boy, can that girl do good mud. We should use her somewhere.'"
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Sealey is already in New York City in rehearsals for Jesus Christ Superstar, which begins previews at the Neil Simon Theatre March 1 and officially opens on March 22.
"I can't believe that is all happening, Broadway-bound!" says Sealey.
Tony Award winner Des McAnuff directed JCS, which last year was a sellout hit starring Paul Nolan as Jesus Christ. In December it transferred to the La Jolla Playhouse, where Kushnier (Footloose, Jersey Boys) joined the cast as Pontius Pilate. In New York he will play James the Lesser while Sealey continues as Thomas, as well as understudying the part of Peter.
"It was a huge shock to be added to the cast in Stratford, and then getting the news about the show going to La Jolla and Broadway... wow," says Sealey, who has appeared in five Rainbow Stage productions. "I feel like I'm just that kid from Grant Park High School, but now on an amazing adventure."
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Aragon is well-known in Winnipeg for his many fringe festival musicals -- Lucrezia Borgia, Illuminati and Hersteria -- but no one has produced one professionally, even in his hometown. So to have a Toronto company choose to debut with Bloodless after chats with 100 Toronto composers is a feather in Aragon's hat.
"It's my big break, I guess," he says. "It's my professional debut, actually. So I'm a little overwhelmed and a little scared."
The musical, first staged here at the 2009 fringe festival, is about the 1829 West Port murders in Edinburgh, Scotland, perpetrated by William Burke and William Hare, who sold the 17 corpses to medical anatomy schools. The subject matter and body have drawn comparisons with Stephen Sondheim's 1979 thriller Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Theatre 20 is the new, artist-driven company that will bow for the first time with Bloodless. Adam Brazier (who played opposite Babb in The Rocky Horror Show) is the artistic director and among the founding artists is Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, and will direct Bloodless at the Panasonic Theatre from Oct. 16 to Nov. 4.
Last week the for-profit company Mirvish Production unveiled its 2012-13 season, which includes the smash hit Book of Mormon and Sister Act, while also announcing that it was offering its subscribers first dibs on tickets to Bloodless. At the launch, before 1,800 people, Wilkinson introduced the Bloodless tune The Bugger's Best Off Dead.
"People seemed to like it," says Mirvish's John Karastamatis. "There were bravos being yelled. We hope this bodes well for Theatre 20 and Bloodless."
Bloodless is also to be revived in Winnipeg to run almost simultaneously with the Toronto run.