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Local girl steals the show in Sonora
Leah Bateman is not the lead in Sierra Repertory Theatre's "White Christmas" - but she's been stealing the show.

Sold-out crowds at the prestigious East Sonora venue have been charmed by the cute performance of the 12-year-old local girl since the play began its run on Nov. 2. She comes close to bringing down the house as she prances around on stage clothed in overalls and top hat in hand as she belts out "I'm Happy."

"I see a lot of people smiling and laughing," said Leah, who is homeschooled through the Connecting Waters' Ceres office. "Like this one girl talking as I did it. She said, 'You go girl.'"

Sierra Repertory Theatre (SRT) director Scott Viets said his audiences are leaving the show talking about Leah as the most memorable of the 23 cast members.

"It's funny," said Viets. "It's a big show and a lot going on and a lot of talent on stage and a lot of big dance numbers and all that. What people remember the most, though, is the little girl who belts out the song. And she delivers every time. And I think the audience is right with her."

Viets fell in love with Leah during her audition and counted her as the standard bearer to beat. "The minute she walked up I went, 'She looks perfect.' She looks like a kid who would step out of a 1950s movie musical. She's a very pretty little girl, you know, very apple pie, wholesome. And just right away very nice. I could tell she had professional experience. She shook my hand very firmly and was very mature. She was very prepared."

After chatting, Leah auditioned with a song "Part of Your World" from "Little Mermaid." Awed by the fact that Leah had not had a single voice lesson, Viets believes Leah was "born with talent."

Leah won't likely forget that audition back in October.

"Everybody working on the set just stopped," recalls Leah, "and started listening and this one guy got out his video camera and started recording me. And then, when I was done, they started clapping and taking pictures. It was really weird."

Viets also recalled the moment. "It was a beautiful voice and very pure. What impressed me was not only was she not unnerved by having all these strangers in the room, she was very confident, she wasn't nervous, she was charming and at the end of her song the entire crew applauded, whistled and whooped and hollered. And I went, well, that's a good sign."

Leah credits her parents, Tim and Jonelle Bateman, for passing on the talent genes; claiming the pipes come from dad and the acting skill from mom. Once Leah landed the role, the Batemans set her up with some singing lessons with a student at Stanislaus State.

"It (singing) is very, very natural for her," said Jonelle. "She just loves to sing."

Leah learned about "White Christmas" auditions in the paper and couldn't wait to try out. Consenting, her parents initially thought that she wouldn't get the part because of the competition since SRT typically attracts professional actors, singers and dancers.

"I thought that 'White Christmas' would be crazy because of the drive and scheduling," admits Jonelle. "I looked on-line and knew there were 46 performances and then I thought, well, what are the odds that she's gonna get it?"

Leah claims she doesn't get nervous on stage but has been known to sweat the auditions; she was especially nervous trying out for "White Christmas" because "SRT is such a big theater and they didn't know me."

Leah plays "Susan," the precocious granddaughter of General Waverly in the Christmas classic. Hers is a much younger and spunkier character than portrayed in the 1954 film classic starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. The stage version of White Christmas was only introduced a few years ago.

"She's sweet and lovable yet the character is kind of sassy and a little wiseacre but Leah is very good at not going over into being bratty or obnoxious because that would turn an audience off," said Viets. "She has found a great balance."

Of the 46 shows, Leah has played 27 of them, splitting the role with Ripon's Rosie Vaughn. Her audiences are typically made up of many older residents from the Valley - Ceres Senior Citizens Club brought a whole busload one night - who are unaware that the little star is from Turlock.

Bateman's shining scene is toward the end when she gets to ham it up during the singing of "I'm Happy." The original scene called for her character to be wearing makeup, pretending to be in the holiday show, and then told to take it off.

"We weren't wearing any makeup so I said the scene doesn't really make sense. So I asked Scott if I could do it and I tried it and he said it was a good idea."

Bateman's improvisation includes dancing and singing as she waved a top hat, and blowing kisses and winking at the audience. They eat it up.

The gifted girl has the whole play memorized and has even been known to prompt some of the adult actors who missed their cues.

"One of the cast backstage came up to her and asked, 'What do I say here? I can't remember this part.' And she has is memorized."

Leah said she has not tired of the show but tires of the Irving Berlin songs.

"I sing it all the time and then at all the practices; we have to do it like three times a day."

The play has been hard on Leah's student life and family life. Leah is homeschooled through the Connecting Waters Charter School, which has an tutoring center in Ceres where she studies.

"It's been really hard on my family," said Leah. "I still try to keep up with homework and everything. Every time I go up to stay the night my mom always sends me with homework and my violin."

When she was about nine years old, Leah landed a role in Townsend Opera's Hansel and Gretel, playing one of the gingerbread child with her family. She also performed in Pirates of Penzance. Leah was also a player this past summer as the Sour Kangaroo in YES Company's "Seussical" in Modesto.

The Batemans have allowed Leah to pursue stage as something she can shine in. If Leah wants to pursue a career in acting, that's fine with the Batemans but they try to keep Leah and her siblings grounded. Acting is a highly competitive business.

"There are a lot of kids out there, cute ones, talented ones and I tell them, you know, really the odds of being successful are slim to none," said Jonelle.

When Leah was 4 or 5, a promoter wanted to fly Leah to Los Angeles to promote her.

"At the time we had six or seven kids and my husband said, 'No, we can't just have you fly around with one child; it's not fair to the rest.' "

"I really, really enjoy the theater," Leah told the Courier. "But it's a tough road. I know a lot of girls and guys too that audition for these roles and I don't know if I can perceive it as my future but I would love to if I could. But if not, I play the violin."

Still, she's trying to talk her parents into letting her audition in L.A. for the Disney Channel or other parts.

"We're sort of playing it by ear," said her mother.

Leah again takes the stage tonight, Thursday and Friday. But forget tickets; the show has been sold out for weeks. Those wanting to see Miss Bateman can get in on her next production: that of the lead role of child Helen Keller in SRT's "The Miracle Worker" at Columbia's Fallon House Feb. 22 through March 16. Rehearsals for Leah begin the first week in February.

"We're excited to have her back for Miracle Worker as Helen Keller," said Kim Mathie, SRT's Marketing & Education Director. "It's a very demanding role physically, with very little dialogue."

Thinking it would be difficult to find a local child for the demanding role, Viets auditioned in Los Angeles and San Francisco but was relieved when Leah tried out. "She blew us away, again," said Viets. "She nailed it. She did her homework."

Jonelle said her daughter prepared for the audition by walking around the house for days pretending to be blind.

"It's one of the most demanding roles for a child, ever," said Viets. "Because she doesn't speak it's a very physical and exhausting role. There are a lot of fights between her and Annie Sullivan."

For tickets to Helen Keller, call for reservations at 532-3120 or visit Sierra Repertory Theatre on line at