Tom Chambers on bringing Crazy For You to Norwich
- Credit: Richard Davenport, The Other Richard
Holby City star and Strictly winner Tom Chambers had a childhood love of tap dancing and has landed his dream role in Gershwin musical Crazy For You. He tells us about his love of Hollywood's golden age.
'It all came about by mistake during a game of football during morning break. No-one had auditioned for the school play, so the teacher came out and said everyone had to audition that afternoon,' says Tom Chambers of how his journey to performing began.
'So we all had to go in and sing rhubarb down a microphone over and over again and I got the part of Dracula in The Dracula Spectacula. I was 13 and I just remember a strange feeling when I was on stage that the audience reaction felt quite good and I thought perhaps this is the thing I should be pursuing.'
The other factor was a love of tap dancing, a rather unlikely passion for a child growing up in the 1980s.
'I was interested in Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire from a very young age,' he reveals. 'I used to stamp on the kitchen floor before I knew what tap dancing was. I used to see those matinee idol films and I became really interested in tap dancing specifically.'
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Fast forward more than two decades and the Holby City and Strictly star freely admits he has finally landed his dream role playing Bobby in the high energy, glamorous, feel-good Gershwin musical Crazy For You, which is at Norwich Theatre Royal this week.
It was the first musical he ever saw and a role he had long coveted. 'I saw the original in the West End with Ruthie Henshall and Tim Flavin when I was 15 or so,' says the performer, who has previously starred in Top Hat. 'I thought if there is one show that I could do, and one part, it would be Bobby in this.
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'There was something so magical in the construction of the Gershwin music, which is golden era Hollywood music, but closer to the 1950s than the 30s. Fred Astaire with things like Top Hat is very clipped, very proper, sophisticated and glamorous, whereas Crazy For You feels a bit more Gene Kelly. There is a bit more of a cheekiness and sassy sexiness.'
Crazy For You charts the troubled love story of Bobby, son of a wealthy New York banking family and frustrated Broadway hoofer, and Polly, daughter of the proprietor of a failing theatre in Deadrock, Nevada. Sent to close the theatre down, Bobby falls for Polly and, in the guise of a Hungarian impresario, decides to save the theatre by putting on a show.
Mistaken identities, heartbreak and happiness ensue with a wealth of memorable tunes from the Gershwin brothers' songbook, including I Got Rhythm, They Can't Take That Away From Me, Nice Work If You Can Get It and Embraceable You.
The musical won the 1992 Tony Award for Best Musical and was revived in 2011. 'I saw the revival in Regent Park and I knew it would be perfect for me,' says Tom. 'I couldn't say yes quick enough. I knew that if you got it just right, with the right cast and the right heart and energy, and the comic timing, it could be special.'
This Watermill Theatre production, which was to have featured Norfolk's own Caroline Flack in the role of Irene (sadly, she has had to pull out of these 'home' shows and the tour because of a back problem), features an ensemble cast of on-stage actor-musicians rather than an orchestra in the pit.
'It has never been done like that before,' says Tom. 'The actors and singing, dancing and playing a musical instrument, so it's great for the audience, there is always something to look at and be entertained by.
'Timing is crucial because there is no conductor. There is so much going on up on stage. The choreography from Nathan M Wright, an Aussie who is so wacky, is my favourite kind of dancing because it does have that Gene Kelly flair and style to it. The production is so physical, you are climbing up the walls and bouncing off things, leaping and jumping.'
Tom can credit his own passion for dancing for his big break into show business.
Having previously been involved with the National Youth Music Theatre, alongside Sheridan Smith, he emerged from drama school only to be fired by his agent for turning down the role of a digger in an arena tour of Bob The Builder.
'I remember the audition, crawling into cockpit of this forklift-like thing made into the characters with two joysticks to control it. I got the job and it was eight months on tour, but I said I'd prefer to wait for a proper acting audition, so my agent fired me because she said she couldn't afford to lose the commission.'
Stung by the setback he instead wrote to the Royal Variety asking to do a Fred Astaire tap dance routine involving a drum kit.
'I spent nine months perfecting it. Then three weeks before I was due to see them, I phoned them to say I was ready and they said don't bother, we're full up,' he recalls. 'So I contacted my old school and asked if I could film it on their stage. I sent out 1,000 copies of the film and I got two responses. One was from Holby City saying they were looking for an American doctor, and although there was no dialogue on this tape at all, they just thought because Fred Astaire was American I must be too. That strange bit of luck is how I get into the audition room and that led to the part of Sam Strachan.'
From there he went on to win the 2008 series of Strictly. 'That was the Willy Wonka ticket into the dance factory for me,' he says of his time on the show. 'I tried to steer it towards the Quickstep and the American Smooth, rather than the Samba, because it was that era that I love. Bruce [Forsyth] was always saying Tommy loves Fred Astaire, because he did too, and we'd always be doing little shuffles and steps backstage. It was definitely thanks to Strictly that I finally got into musical theatre, but I can't believe it took so long. From seeing Crazy For You when I was 15 to being in it 20 years later.'
• Replacing Caroline as Irene will be Hollie Cassar.
• Crazy For You is at Norwich Theatre Royal from October 31 to November 4, 7.30pm, 2.30pm Nov 1-2/4, £37.50-£8, 01603 630000, theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk