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Facing the music and dancing with Top Hat

PUBLISHED: 09:41 25 October 2011 | UPDATED: 09:41 25 October 2011

Top Hat

Top Hat

©ALASTAIR MUIR CONTACT alastair@alastairmuir.com

It has taken 77 years for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical Top Hat to make it to the stage but a sumptuous new versions relives the hey days of Hollywood glitz and glamour. TREVOR HEATON reports.

Some things are worth the wait — and it’s been a little matter of 77 years in the case of Top Hat.

That’s how long it has taken for the classic 1934 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers RKO film musical to make its way to the stage.

But it’s worth it. An ensemble of 45 is heading to the Theatre Royal from October 25 to November 5 to put on this glitzy production. With a glamorous 1930s-style set, sensational choreography and a Top Hat-brim-full of Irving Berlin tunes, it’s very much a case of ‘what’s not to like?’

And then, of course, there’s the two leads, Tom Chambers and Summer Strallen, who are both looking forward to their Norfolk visit as part of the show’s 17-week UK tour.

Tom’s love affair with tap dancing began when he was just a boy, stamping on his parents’ kitchen floor. Fast forward a couple of decades and he’s stepping in to some very big tap shoes indeed: those of dance legend Fred Astaire.

It’s a testament to the Strictly Come Dancing winner’s talent that not only was he being offered the chance to be the first person to play one of the leads in the new musical, but he’s being entrusted with caretaking the iconic role of Jerry Travers.

Unsurprisingly, when Tom was offered the opportunity, he grabbed it with both hands. “When I answered the phone it was like that big hand coming down from the sky and saying ‘it’s you’,” he recalls.

As he explains, his love affair with the glamour of the old Hollywood dance movies goes back to his childhood – and it was Fred Astaire that got him his first big break.

Tom grew up in Derbyshire, in a picturesque village called Darley Dale, and was bitten by the acting bug when he played the lead role in Dracula Spectacular at school.

“It was like a doorway had opened. It felt like a very natural relationship between me and the audience. It felt like I had found something I might try and pursue. I was very lucky to find that out at 12 years old,” he says.

Tom attended the National Youth Music Theatre and studied at the Guilford School of Acting, but then reached a crossroads.

“I was an unemployed actor without an agent,” he says. “My agent had fired me for not accepting Bob the Builder the arena tour. Being unemployed is one thing, but to be without an agent is really dire, you don’t get any auditions.”

Many people would have given up – but Tom did something quite astonishing. “I think it began for me when I put on to YouTube a Fred Astaire tap dance routine [from the 1937 RKO film A Damsel in Distress] in which Fred Astaire tap dances with a drum kit, that I spent nine months practising in a shed at the bottom of the garden.

“The last straw was to go home and live with my parents and do this routine in the hope I would get on the Royal Variety Show.”

He didn’t make it on to the bill but, undeterred, he filmed himself performing the routine and sent it out to people in the industry in the hope that they would be interested in hiring him. The hours of dedication paid off.

“I sent out 1,000 copies to the whole industry to see if anyone was interested and I got an audition for Holby City, which was looking for an American doctor because they thought I was American. Then they asked me to come back and audition for a bigger part.”

That role was Sam Strachan. And from there he got the call to take part in Strictly...

In Top Hat, Tom’s character, Jerry Travers, is a famous American tap dancer, who arrives in London to appear in his first West End show. He meets the irresistible Dale Tremont, played by Summer, and follows her across Europe in an attempt to win her heart. And what’s the best way for him to woo her? Why, by a series of series of lavish song and dance routines, naturally.

Tom says that he has looking forward to working with Summer, who was recently nominated for an Olivier award for her portrayal of Meg Giry in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera sequel Love Never Dies.

“Summer is the perfect Ginger Rogers,” he says. “I’m so lucky to be working with her. The thing is she’s a West End star and she comes with so much theatre experience and professionalism. I feel it’s good for me. I’m going to have someone to keep up with – I’ve got some work on my hands. She’s such a formidable actress, singer and dancer.”

Tom’s admiration for Summer is reciprocated by the award-winning West End actress. “I think he’s going to keep surprising me. I fell in love with him – in the ‘show husband’ kind of sense obviously!” she explains. “He’s just absolutely enthusiastic about life and work. It’s like when I did Guys and Dolls with Ewan McGregor, which was amazing and definitely a highlight of my career – I had a huge ridiculous crush, completely besotted!”

Summer has won, or been nominated, for so many stage awards it’s hard to believe she’s still only 25. They in-clude three Olivier Award nominations for roles in Love Never Dies, The Drowsy Chaperone and The Boy Friend. But, then again, it’s in the blood you see. Her parents were both in the musical Cats and her three sisters are all actresses. Oh, and she’s also the niece of Bonnie Langford and family friends with Christopher Biggins.

Like Tom, Summer found the chance to perform in Top Hat too good to miss. “I’m a huge fan of Fred and Ginger and those iconic movie stars like Ann Miller, Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse,” she says. “There’s many that I could watch every day and who I take a lot of my inspiration from. I think because Love Never Dies was such a drama I felt I needed to do some comedy. The script is so farcical it’s brilliant and works so beautifully on stage. An uplift-ing, funny show.”

In a show packed with great numbers, there’s one that Summer is particular fond of - and not just for the music. “I’m really looking forward to doing Cheek to Cheek, purely because of the costume. There’s some kind of feath-ered creation in the offing, which will be a joy. I’m a girly girl when it comes to dressing up; especially in that era – it’s just so decadent.”

Both actors want to do the classic justice, of course, and feel they’ve got a great responsibility on their shoulders.

“It’s very rare that you’re given the opportunity, where you’re the first person in,” says Tom. “It’s good to put your own stamp on it. It’s extremely nerve-racking if you’re the first in. You want to make sure it’s as good as it can possibly be. There’s a lot of expectation and you want to do it justice.”

■ Top Hat is at Norwich Theatre Royal from October 25 to November 5, Mon-Thurs £39.50-£6.50/Fri-Sat £42.50-£6.50, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk www.tophatonstage.com

HOLLYWOOD MAGIC

Nominated for four Academy Awards, Top Hat is widely regarded as one of the greatest dance musicals of all time and the most successful picture of the nine movies Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together.

It premiered at the Radio City Music Hall in 1935 where it broke all box office records.

It was composer Irving Berlin’s first complete film score since 1930. Astaire later recalled how this success helped restore Berlin’s flagging self-confidence.

There ensued a lifelong friendship with Berlin contributing to more Astaire films (six in total) than any other composer. Of his experience with Astaire in Top Hat Berlin wrote: “He’s a real inspiration for a writer. I’d never have written Top Hat without him. He makes you feel so secure.”

Top Hat was the most successful picture of Astaire and Rogers’ partnership (and Astaire’s second most successful picture after Easter Parade).

While some dance critics maintain that Swing Time contained a finer set of dances, Top Hat remains, to this day, the partnership’s best-known work

The new stage show, which is produced by Kenny Wax, directed by Matthew White and choreographed by Bill Dreamer will have a cast of 30 and will be accompanied by a live band of 15.

The score includes a host of Irving Berlin classics, including Cheek to Cheek, Isn’t It A Lovely Day to be Caught in the Rain?, Top Hat and White Tie and Tails, Let’s Face the Music and Dance and I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket.

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