Rhode Island is one of those places where it seems like no matter how long you’ve lived here as a transplant, you’re never truly a Rhode Islander if you weren’t born within the tiny state’s borders. But for Coventry-based actor Tommy Labanaris, who relocated to the state with his husband a little more than three years ago, after the two had spent a decade making it work as actors in New York City, he finally feels like he has a place to call home.
“One of the things I remember about living in New York was that every six months I was on the road. People said, ‘well, you moved to New York to leave it,’” says Tommy, who will be starring as The Baker in Ocean State Theatre Company’s production of Into The Woods this month. “But now, I can’t really describe how amazing it is to drive 20 minutes away from home, rehearse a show that’s so dear to my heart and at the end of the day, drive home to my husband and puppy and have dinner. You can do really good work here and not have to be on the road all the time.”
As someone who has certainly put in his time being a starving artist in the city, Tommy knows a good thing when he sees it. Bitten by the bug when he was young, Tommy loved to sing, but spent more of his time as a three-season athlete while growing up in New Hampshire. But when a performance in the school variety show led to a turn in The Odd Couple and later to summer stock at the Rochester Opera House, he knew he’d found his calling. Like many young artists, even as he studied theater in college, there was no shortage of feedback that theater wasn’t a real career option.
“I remember saying to someone, ‘You don’t just go out in the world and do this,’” he explains, echoing the self-doubt he had started to feel as he continued clinging to the idea that he’d major in biology. “But they said, ‘Well, who do you think does this out in the world?’ I realized it was a craft, and I was constantly learning.”
Tommy dropped his bio major in favor of theater, dedicating himself to learning all aspects of the art form and the history of the business. After graduating from the University of New Hampshire, armed with the knowledge that one could really do this out in the world, he made his way to the Bristol Valley Theater in Maple, New York, where he met his husband, Ryan Bates, during a production of Lend Me A Tenor.
Now, the pair makes their home in Coventry, where Ryan is a real estate agent and Tommy pairs website design with roles around the region (he made his OSTC debut in Les Mis during the theater’s debut season in its Warwick space, continuing on to do two more shows that year) and occasional kids’ concerts back in NYC. “Being a part of the Ocean State hits close to home in lots of ways – I’ve just set down roots in Coventry, and I’m setting down roots in Warwick. It feels like OSTC and I are getting a start at the same time. It’s a nice parallel, and I’ve found a great family there.”
Tommy and his co-stars are readying the Tony Award-winning musical for local audiences – quite a number of them, it would seem, as the theater company announced they were extending the show’s run well before it opened. “When we chose to include Into the Woods this season, we had no idea how popular it would be,” says Producing Artistic Director Amiee Turner in a release advertising the extension.
At the time of our conversation, Tommy hadn’t yet sat down to rehearse, but already he was turning over his iconic role in his mind. Playing an impoverished baker who desperately wants a child and undertakes a risky bargain to get one, Tommy says he thinks audiences will no doubt identify with his character, the compromises he makes and the toll they take on his good soul. “The big picture is that you might want something different, but you realize you were fine right where you were. Stephen Sondheim, the original composer, is a master with the message: we should be careful what we wish for, because those wishes might come true and then we’ll have to deal with them,” he says. “The play shows us it’s fine to want more, but we should really appreciate what we have.”
Into the Woods
Ocean State Theatre Company
1245 Jefferson Boulevard, Warwick
April 29-May 23