City debut for sizzling salsa musical

EMMA OUTTEN Put on your dancing shoes – sizzling, screwball, salsa musical Murderous Instinct gets its European premiere at Norwich Theatre Royal.

EMMA OUTTEN

Having been to the sun-soaked shores of puerto rico, and survived a night in the capital San Juan, it would be fair to say that those Puerto Ricans have certainly got the rhythm of the salsa beat!

Puerto Rico is spiritual home to salsa. It is also the home of producer Manny and Cindy Fox, the husband and wife team behind Murderous Instincts, the new salsa musical which will be receiving its European premiere in Norwich on Friday, August 27, prior to going to the West End.

The musical comes direct from the small Caribbean island, where producer Manny and Cindy – the woman who wrote the book behind and lyrics for Murderous Instincts – reside. It was the biggest hit in the history of new musical theatre in Puerto Rico when it debuted in San Juan in 2002. As the San Juan star put it so succinctly at the time: “It will show the entire world that there is more to Puerto Rican musical theatre than gangs on the West Side.”

The Theatre Royal is hailing it as “the hottest new musical from across the Atlantic”. As we are talking salsa we are talking sexy stuff here, which may be why the musical is suitable for those aged 14 and up.

At a special press launch at The Garage, the company and creative team were full of anticipation, and the atmosphere was made even more convivial with the serving up of rum punch…

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For Theatre Royal chief executive Peter Wilson, it was a big day for everyone concerned.

Murderous Instincts does have the hallmarks of a successful musical this side of the Atlantic, if the multi award-winning creative team is anything to go by.

First up, there's director Bob Carlton, perhaps best known for Return to the Forbidden Planet, which won the 1990 Olivier Award for Best Musical. But to retain the Latin look of the musical, the Original director in Puerto Rico, Joseph Aguayo, has remained as creative consultant.

Sound designer Mike Walker was the winner of the first ever Olivier Award for Best Sound Design, for Jerry Springer: The Opera .

MTV award-winning choreographer Michael Rooney, son of the legendary Micky Rooney, was the man behind Fatboy Slim's Weapon of Choice (the one with Christopher Walken almost dancing on the ceiling) as well as Bjork's It's Oh So Quiet.

If that was not enough to be getting along with, the choreographer and lead dancer in Murderous Instincts World Salsa Open winner Jhesus Aponte. Jhesus is one of the world's leading Latin dance choreographers and is originally from Puerto Rico (well, where else do you think he would have come from?).

The music is by Alberto Carrion, a man touted as the “new Irving Berlin” by Manny at the press launch. Hip shaking, Latino lover Ricky Martin is among the artists who have recorded Alberto's songs.

The idea with Murderous Instincts is to ignite the stage in Norwich with red-hot salsa dancing set to an infectious Latin-based score performed live by a large band of around 15 musicians.

Cinda Firestone Fox, to give her, her full name, is an award-winning documentary maker. One of her films, Attica, is regarded as one of the 10 greatest documentary films ever made.

And Cinda was inspired by her own family history, that of the Firestone Tire family, when writing the book and lyrics.

Murderous Instincts has been described as an explosive, passionate, and hilariously screwball tale of family rivalry.

Cinda's story goes something like this. Edwina, glamorous widow of the late rum tycoon Bradford Buckingham, is awaiting the return of her children, Colin and Lauren, in the wake of their father's death.

She had always been repressed by her overbearing Connecticut-bred husband and now finds herself a widow and her free spirit beginning to emerge. Summoned with their spouses to the luxurious, palm-lined Puerto Rican mansion, the children arrive with quiet trepidation, each desperate to claim their share of the vast estate.

But it is also a chance for a rendezvous between Colin's and Lauren's spouses, Juan and Felicia, who have previously been teenage sweethearts and are now wondering if perhaps they made the wrong choice.

Needless to say, the family reunion soon collapses into frenzied turmoil with the sudden disappearance of their mother – and, as the mystery unravels, a string of forbidden secrets, lost dreams, and deeply-rooted fears are exposed in a dynamic whirlwind of lust, obsession, jealously and greed. Phew.

Expect twists and turns – and that's just the dancing.

“Everybody's murderous instincts and buried skeletons come back up,” explained Manny. He added: “Murderous Instincts is about the murderous instincts in all of us…We have inherited them from our ancestors, the cave men, but we largely suppress them.”

He continued on a personal note: “Instead of the image of Puerto Rico as “West Side Story/gangs and drugs, there's a snobby upper class in Puerto Rico, more snobby than anyone I ever knew in Park Avenue, where I lived for many years.”

Manny is keen to portray “a country we don't know much about.”

It sounds as though there could be elements of Dallas and Dynasty in the musical, with a bit of Agatha Christie murder mystery about it, but ultimately, as Mannie said: “What really drives it is the salsa music and Puerto Rican culture.”

He added: “I just think it's going to be fantastic.”

For a little Latin American romance in The Garage, “Felicia” and “Juan” treated us to a romantic rendition of the one of the duets.

Sarah Ingram, who plays Felicia, was attracted to the musical, by saying: “There are so many revivals around, so many tributes around…”

A musical with a salsa beat, on the other hand, “comes from the soul. It comes from within.”

Ben Goddard plays Juan. The last time he performed at Norwich Theatre Royal was during the UK tour, five year's ago, of Jesus Christ Superstar, in which he played Judas.

He recalled: “It was such a friendly audience in Norwich and they are very open to things.”

And having lived in South America for 18 months before he turned 18, he knows a thing or two about Latin American dancing.

Arvid Larsen, who plays son Colin, is also no stranger to Norwich, having also toured in Jesus Christ Superstar and as Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Ask Manny Fox why Norwich in particular was chosen for the European premiere prior to the West End and the answer is along the lines of “why not?” “We came over to England for a vacation…we had an epiphany: 'England is the place'.”

But why Norwich? “Best city with best theatre?” he offered, before adding: “We found this was the best audience and best place to do the show.”

“We are very honoured to come to this beautiful place, to come to this beautiful theatre.”

The larger than life producer was the man behind Broadway musicals The Roots of Jazz, A Happening with Salvador Dali, The Carl Sandburg American Songbag, Questionable Quest and Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies. He has worked with Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Orson Welles and Louis Armstrong. And he believes he is bringing a Broadway feel to Norwich. He announced: “Manny Fox is here to make history.”

Peter Wilson loves the idea of Norwich being the location of the European premiere. The Theatre Royal has never before originated a major musical.

And he was particularly pleased that The Garage has been used “to create a major piece of West End, and, we assume, Broadway, musical history.”

The production stars Oliver award-winning actress Nichola McAuliffe, last seen in Norwich with Ross Kemp in The Taming Of The Shrew. She has such a love for the City and celebrated her 18th wedding anniversary with husband, crime reporter on The Mirror Don Mackay, at By Appointment recently.

For Peter, things have come around full circle: “The first ever West End show I did starred Nichola McAuliffe,” he said. The show was Annie Wobbler, written by Arnold Wesker especially for her, at the Fortune Theatre in 1983.

Nichola is a familiar face from the TV shows Surgical Spirit and Pig In The Middle. And who can forget her role as Ken Barlow's love interest, Anita Scott, in Coronation Street just a few years back?

With Murderous Instinct a musical comedy, Nichola is well cast – she is naturally hilarious according to fellow cast members Ben and Sarah, and on meeting her, I'd be inclined to agree.

“As long as anyone starts taking it seriously you've got a serious problem, on stage or off,” said Nichola, who has also appeared in the West End in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

She describes her character of Edwina as “Margherita Pracitan meets Lily Savage”. And looking ahead to a West End run, perhaps, she added: “It's very camp, it's going to be the gay musical of 2005!”

Ironically, Nichola hates dancing, and had looked at her husband in horror when he had handed her a flyer for salsa dancing lessons prior to her taking the part.

Mannie likes the idea of Theatre Royal audiences dancing salsa in the streets, and then maybe taking up salsa lessons, after the show.

The dance form has never been so popular. Dirty Dancing sequel Havana Nights hits cinemas later this year, for instance, and the dirty dancing in question is salsa and Latin ballroom.

Within the last 18 months or so there has been an upsurge in Latin American dancing.

In Norwich, one only need call in to The Forum on a Monday night to see salsa lessons in full swing.

As lead dancer Jhesus Alponte, who started salsa dancing as a child, said of his home country: “Salsa is growing everyday, the clubs are getting really packed – people must salsa!”

And he added: “I know salsa is very popular in England right now and the cast are loving their dancing rehearsals even though they may not have tried these moves before.” (Maybe with the notable exception of the leading lady…)

Puerto Ricans are loving the fact that a salsa musical is opening in England, apparently.

It will soon be time for even absolute beginners to take their partner and see the world's best salsa dancer do his stuff when Murderous Instincts comes exclusively to the Theatre Royal before going to the Savoy in the West End. Director Bob Carlton says: “There's really been nothing like it before but I promise you Norwich can expect a feast of fun, some of the flashiest salsa dancing you've ever seen and some truly great songs.”

Manny said: “Everyone will take a bow - then you will get a true feeling of what salsa dancing is all about.

“Everyone will go home with a wonderful vibe.” t

t Murderous Instincts, starring Nichola McAuliffe, runs from Friday August 27 to Saturday September 4 at Norwich Theatre Royal, box office 01603 630000. More information on www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

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