UVic grad hits Broadway

This week, the parents of Victoria-born actor Sara Topham will visit New York City for the first time. On Friday, they'll see their first Broadway show.

And the capper? Their daughter is performing in it.

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Topham plays Lady Bracknell's kooky daughter, Gwendolyn, in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. Staged by the Roundabout Theatre Company, the comedy — starring a cross-dressing Brian Bedford as Bracknell — has scored rave reviews since opening last week at the 42nd Street theatre off Times Square.

"My parents have never been to New York. They're going to see their first Broadway play and I am going to be in it, which is kind of cool," Topham said this week from New York.

"Yes, it's a great thing for us," said her father, David Topham, when I phoned him at his Victoria home. "We're absolutely thrilled."

It is indeed both thrilling and cool. Sara graduated from the University of Victoria's theatre department in 1998 to become a well-regarded classical stage actress. Prior to her Broadway debut, her mainstay has been the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where she has acted regularly for a dozen seasons.

In fact, the New York show is a revival of a 2009 Stratford version. Significantly, of that Canadian production, only Bedford (who both stars and directs), the designer and Topham were retained for the Broadway run, continuing through March 6.

In New York, Topham finds herself on stage with Dana Ivey, the legendary Tony-winning character actress. The pair hit it off. Ivey even invited her young colleague on a date: Dinner at Joe Allen's, followed by a show, The Merchant of Venice.

"We sat in her Tony Award voter seats, which were like, fifth row, centre," Topham said.

She is also tickled to be acting opposite Paxton Whitehead, another stage veteran.

"I used to listen, with my Dad, to Paxton Whitehead and Beyond the Fringe. The recording from 1964 that he did on Broadway [White replaced Jonathan Miller] ... and then here he is."

This is no American Idol-style tale of novice talent being whisked from Nowheres-ville to the Big Apple.

Topham's Stratford resumé includes such meaty items as Dangerous Liaisons, King Lear, An Ideal Husband, The Merchant of Venice, The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Victorians might remember her as the governess in the Belfry Theatre's 2008 production of The Turn of the Screw. I remember Sara as a bright spark in UVic shows such as Noel Coward's Fallen Angels. There was also Langham Court Theatre's Pygmalion back in 1995. Even then she was strong.

Now, the American press is picking up on her. The New York Times deems her Gwendolyn amusing and "ravishing;" the New York Post declares her interpretation a "riot."

Topham was surprised at the splashy press throng greeting the cast after opening night. Cameras flashed and reporters grilled her on how she felt after her Broadway debut.

"I guess it is kind of a big deal," she said. "I wouldn't say I was more nervous here than at Stratford. You just go into a room with a group of people and you try to make the magic happen."

She's staying in a spiffy midtown Manhattan apartment. Topham has visited New York often, but working as an actor in the city for the first time is something else.

"One morning I got up, had my breakfast, got dressed and walked out the front door. I was walking to 45th Street to go to rehearsal.

"It feels so different compared to being in the city as a visitor," she said. "It just does."

• • •

Are you a high-school would-be actor hoping to follow in Sara Topham's footsteps? You might want to check out the UVic theatre department's open-house information session. It happens Saturday, Jan. 29, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the Phoenix Building.

The theatre school is not just for actors; it also offers training in such things as directing and creating sets, costumes and lighting. Attendees will see a rehearsal of a scene from Twelfth Night, take a backstage tour and meet staff and students. Parents are welcome as well. To register, visit: www.finearts.uvic.ca/theatre

achamberlain@timescolonist.com

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