“The Lion in Winter” queen Leslie Castay’s Top 5 royals in popular culture

15250790_10154736025909561_5339399058981059792_o “THE LION IN WINTER”
WHAT: See ’Em On Stage presents the Tony Award-winning drama. Christopher Bentivegna directs Leslie Castay, Kali Russell, Kevin Murphy, Alec Barnes, Alex Martinez Wallace, Eli Timm and Jake Wynne-Wilson
WHEN: Dec. 1-18
WHERE: Sanctuary Cultural Arts Center, 2525 Burgundy St.
TICKETS: $25-$30
INFO: seosaproductioncompany.com

There’s something very special, and very royal, about See ’Em On Stage’s production of “The Lion in Winter,” a witty tale of palace intrigue around King Henry II; his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine; and some nasty song with a mistress and French King thrown in for good measure. The Tony Award-winning play (written by the great James Goldman) might be better known for the Academy Award-winning film adaptation that starred a late-career Katharine Hepburn opposite young British stars Peter O’Toole and Anthony Hopkins. It’s also noted as an inspiration for Fox’s delicious TV drama on the hip-hop world, “Empire.”

Intrigued by the staging of palace intrigue, we asked star Leslie Castay, a fittingly royal choice for Eleanor, to serve up her five favorite royals of popular culture:

AUDREY HEPBURN IN “ROMAN HOLIDAY” — The 1953 movie starring a luminous young Audrey Hepburn as a princess on the loose in Rome, accompanied by the handsome Gregory Peck and the charming Eddie Albert. Pure escapist rom-com heaven.

“SNOW WHITE”’S QUEEN — “Snow White” was the first movie I ever saw as a child and I still get chills when her beautifully evil face fills the screen.

LADY DIANA’S WEDDING DAY — Also known as “the original Kate Middleton.” Her wedding dress was the inspiration for my prom dress, along with the rest of New Orleans high school girls. (Mine was dusty rose taffeta, by the way.)

SIAN PHILLIPS AS LIVIA IN “I, CLAUDIUS” — I got hooked on the miniseries during a re-broadcast on PBS in the 1990s while I was doing summer stock in Pennsylvania. Sian Philllips’ played Livia, wife of the first Emperor of Rome Augustus, trying to elevate her son Tiberius to the throne by any means possible was deliciously evil and elegantly royal at the same time — such fun.

KATHARINE HEPBURN IN “THE LION IN WINTER” — I was in high school when my drama teacher showed us the movie one day in class. Hepburn and O’Toole’s chemistry is fantastic, and I delighted in hearing such wickedly contemporary dialogue in period costume and surroundings. Classic lines include “I’d hang you from the nipples, but you’d shock the children.” ’Nuf said.

See ’Em On Stage announces 2016-17 season along with expanded programming, restructuring (exclusive)

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See ‘Em On Stage, the nearly three-year-old New Orleans theatrical company known for its passion for offbeat musical satire, announced a 2016-17 season fueled by a management restructuring and other changes during its “Rebel Rebel” premiere party Tuesday (May 31) at the Ugly Dog Saloon.

“This new model will allow us to offer opportunities to a wider variety of artists including local writers, directors, actors, designers, dancers, musicians, and theater educators; along with visual artists (for special projects),” Artistic Director Christopher Bentivegna said in a press release. “Our team now includes 16 diverse theater professionals working together in order to provide a multitude of projects within seven different divisions.”

That team will feature Bentivegna along with Kali Russell (associate artistic director), Bob Murrell (managing director), Breanna Beitz (managing director), Jake Wynne-Wilson (community outreach coordinator), Ashton Akridge (burlesque division coordinator), Kayln Hepting (staged readings division coordinator) and Abbey P. Murrell, Caroline St. Amant, Eli Timm, Clayton Shelvin, Anna Toujas, Robert Young, Logan Faust, Rebecca Lindell, Ariel Schwab, and Sam Cespedes.

(Read more: Christopher Bentivegna’s Top 5 favorite See ’Em On Stage productions)

New divisions to accompany the company’s main-stage productions include original works, burlesque, comedy, staged readings, community outreach and youth education. The new season also will bring on new venues such as the New Orleans Art Center, The Avant-Garden District, and The Valiant, a new theater opened by Richard Mayer — formerly of the Old Marquer Theatre. (This new theater is scheduled to open in July, the release said.”

See ‘Em On Stage already has presented work that reflects this new approach, the release said, noting the production of original short plays as part of its community-outreach program for patients and clients at both Children’s Hospital of New Orleans and Crossroads Louisiana (which services adults with disabilities). The company plans to partner with The New Movement for a program for teens to perform in a full one-act production at program’s end.

The company also has brought in Four Sweater Vests, the local staged-readings company, as one of its official divisions “with a mission to provide opportunities to both experienced and novice performers and directors through participation in staged readings of popular works.”

“This new model of different divisions will allow us to not only offer more opportunities to established as well as fledgling artists, but will provide us and the theater community in general with a more diverse and wide-reaching audience base,” the release said.

The 2016-17 main stage season will offer a schedule that speaks to the “Rebel Rebel” theme that explores the notions of heroes and anti-heroes, and will include three regional premieres and one New Orleans premiere. (Synopsies provided by the company.)

Lizzie the Musical
Written by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Tim Maner and Alan Stevens Hewitt
Aug. 11-28, 2016 (Thursdays through Sundays, 8 p.m.) except Aug. 13 (9:30 p.m.)
New Orleans Arts Club
Synopsis: “Four women front a rock band and tell the scandalous story of Lizzie Borden, America’s favorite double-axe murderess and Victorian hometown girl. In 1892, on a sweltering August day in a small New England town, a well-to-do elderly man and his second wife were brutally murdered with an axe in broad daylight. Lizzie Borden, their youngest daughter, was the primary suspect. She was arrested and tried, but, with no witnesses to the hideous crime, she was acquitted. The murders remain unsolved to this day and have become not only one of America’s most notorious legends but also the inspiration for this critically acclaimed new musical. This nearly sung-through rock opera’s score owes less in inspiration to Andrew Lloyd Weber or Stephen Sondheim than it does to Heart, Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, and Grace Slick. Starring Abbey P. Murrell, Idella Johnson, Kali Russell, and Leslie L. Claverie as Lizzie Borden. This production will be a regional premiere.” Continue reading

Christopher Bentivegna’s Top 5 favorite productions by See ’Em On Stage

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WHAT: “REBEL REBEL!”: See ’Em On Stage season announcement party
WHEN: Tuesday, May 31, 7 p.m.
WHERE: Ugly Dog Saloon, 401 Andrew Higgins Drive
TICKETS: $12 advance, $15 at the door
MORE: Visit www.seosaproductioncompany.com or here.

Under the supervision of Christopher Bentivegna, See ’Em On Stage has been a welcome new addition to the New Orleans theater scene at a time when we’re seeing fewer of them around. In advance of the production company’s 2016-2017 season announcement (7 p.m. Tuesday, May 31, at the Ugly Dog Saloon), we asked Chris to provide his five favorite productions.

In only two and 1/2 years, See ’Em On Stage has made quite a splash. And sometimes a bloody one. During this time, we have presented shows of various styles, from campy blood-splatter musicals to original works to a melodramatic world premiere stage production of an internationally known best-selling novel. Our productions have starred some of New Orleans’ finest singers and actors and even one multiple Tony Award-winning actor. Every production challenged us in new ways and drew in diverse audiences. Our goal, when we began, was to provide theatrical experiences akin to what New Yorkers are able to get when they venture to off and off-off Broadway shows. Every one of our mainstage productions has been New Orleans premieres and a few were world premieres where we worked directly with the writers. It is difficult to pick a “Top 5,” but the following represents the evolution of our company and the bold work we have shared with our audiences.

EvilDeadcast.Marcia Arceneaux

“Evil Dead.” (Photo by Marcia Arceneaux)

5) “Evil Dead: The Musical” — “Evil Dead” was the musical that started it all! Challenged with a script that glorifies blood splatter and gore, we focused on the heart of the musical and it was directed more in the style of a musical like “Hairspray.” I encouraged the actors to find the truth in all of their cartoon-style characters, and it was choreographed (Lindsey Romig) and musical-directed (by our multiple Big Easy Award nominated musical director Natalie True) in a bubbly, upbeat way. Right before we started rehearsing with the blood, I told the cast, “We are going to take this bright, polished, buoyant musical that we have created and we are going to crap all over it with blood.” Audiences were immersed into the action and gore by becoming part of the experience as blood was rained all over them. The show was not only a commercial success, but it was also a surprising critical one as well, garnering rave reviews from the local press and receiving multiple Big Easy Award nominations including Best Musical of the Year. It went on to win the award for Best Actor for Robert Facio’s spot-on performance as the demon-killing Ash. We would go on to produce two more blood-splatter musicals: “Musical of the Living Dead,” which was based on the classic zombie horror film “Night of the Living Dead” (and which featured more than twice the blood of “Evil Dead”), and “A Christmassacre Story,” which was a devised work (featuring puppets!) written by the talented Kimberly Kaye and starring Michael Cerveris — who only a few months later went on to win his second Tony award for his critically acclaimed performance in “Fun Home.”

Zanna Don't.Michael Clark

“Zanna Don’t!” (Photo by Michael Clark)

4) “Zanna Don’t!”  Our follow-up to “Evil Dead” could not have been more different. It was a musical that celebrated diversity and glorified everything sparkly and bright. Glitter and be gay! We assembled an amazing cast with some of the most beautiful voices in New Orleans. The Big Easy Award-nominated choreography by Lindsey Romig was astounding, particularly given the constraints she faced in the tiny Old Marquer blackbox theater (still The Shadowbox at the time). The story of a reverse world where being gay is normal and being straight is frowned upon, was embraced by audiences and critics and showed a softer, more gentle side of our company while exuding our previous aesthetic of taking risks and finding the true heart in the material. It, too, went on to garner a myriad of Big Easy Award nominations with Joshua Brewer winning Best Actor for his touching portrayal of the title character.

A New Brain

“A New Brain.” (Photo by Audion de Vergniette)

3) “A New Brain”  This was our first show that we produced outside of The Old Marquer. It was a co-production with Chris Wecklein’s (who also starred as Gordon) company Some People, LLC, and also starred Tracey Collins and Jessica Mixon in their Big Easy Award nominated performances. It was a challenging show, and we were presented with an even bigger challenge with our venue, Kajun’s Pub. This little-known, off-Broadway show was a tough sell as a musical about a man who was suffering a life-threatening brain disorder. In addition, the show is not told in a typical straightforward, linear way. It required actors who could not only handle difficult vocals (made easier by our talented music director Ainsley Matich) but who could also bring these characters to life in a way that would help provide a clearer understanding of the non-traditional storytelling to the audience. We were honored to work with some of the city’s finest performers in this show, and everyone handled his or her own role with aplomb, developing rich and memorable characterizations and stopping the show with gorgeous vocal performances. The challenge of staging and choreographing (choreography by Amanda Zirkenbach) the show in a bar was actually one of the most exciting and rewarding things about the experience. We embraced the entire space and completely immersed the audience in the world of these rich characters, telling their story with reverence, love, heart and music.

Flowers in the Attic.Christopher Bentivegna

“Flowers in the Attic.” (Photo by Christopher Bentivegna)

2) “Flowers in the Attic”  “Flowers in the Attic” was unique for many reasons. It was our first non-musical, and the first time the story, based on the best-selling novel by VC Andrews, was ever presented theatrically. We were honored to be chosen as the first production company in the world to present this beloved and controversial story, and the experience was made better by being able to work directly with the playwright Andrew Neiderman. Mr. Neiderman, known for his best-selling novel “The Devil’s Advocate,” took over writing for VC Andrews as her ghostwriter following her death in 1986 and has sold tens of millions of copies of his books under both names. The book, banned from many school libraries, was a favorite of mine since I was a child and as a senior in high school I had written, produced and directed my own one-act version for my senior drama class project. It felt fated that I would have the experience to be the first producer and director in the world to tackle this piece in its official world premiere. Dealing with themes of child abuse, betrayal, greed, incest, and murder, the play was particularly challenging in its casting. Not only did the actors have to very specifically resemble the characters that were known from the book and two movie adaptations but two of them had to be young children (under the age of 10) who could pass as twins. The cast not only handled the material with skill but also with great sensitivity as well. Each actor created a beautiful, tragic and sympathetic character and the entire cast developed electrifying chemistry. The entire experience was heightened by an effectively chilling set (Matthew Collier with Rebecca Lindell) that transformed the entire black box of The Old Marquer into the attic itself with the audience becoming “trapped” in there alongside the characters. The show went on to become an unexpected commercial and critical success and was recently awarded with multiple Big Easy Award nominations.

Terminator.Brian Jarreau

“Terminator.” (Photo by Brian Jarreau)

1) “Terminator The Musical”  “Terminator” may have been the biggest surprise of our short history as a theater company. Written by local writer, Breanna Bietz, the show received its world premiere as part of the Faux/Real festival in the fall of 2015. Ms. Bietz approached us after seeing our production of Musical of the Living Dead about potentially producing her work. Seeing an aesthetic that she felt matched the tone of her writing, she pursued what eventually became a symbiotic partnership. We recruited the creative and energetic Cammie West to co-direct (which helped us greatly since we were doing one show overlapping with another at the time) and found a cast of sexy, talented, and devoted actors and singers. What made the show so special was the special collaboration that formed between us all. The play itself went through a variety of rewrites and concepts and each actor was able to give input into the development of his or her character. The “orchestral music” was 100-percent electronic, which gave the whole production a high-energy and modern feel. The intimate space of The Old Marquer was a perfect complement to this fast-paced, tight and seductive show. Audiences embraced the show, with lines out the door and one standing room only performance after another. Critics also embraced the show, impressed with the ingenuity and creativity of the production and the talent and charisma of the cast. We were honored to receive several Big Easy Award nominations for the production and were thrilled to perform one of the best songs from the play, “Programmed to Kill,” at the awards show this past April.