Putting on his Top Hat for glamorous revival of Hollywood musical in Norwich
- Credit: Submitted
From the Brighton Fringe Festival to successful show Yank, Chris Cuming is a name to watch in the UK theatre world. Now he is bringing his magic to something very different, directing a revival of Top Hat for the Norfolk and Norwich Operatic Society.
You can like his work or hate it but just don't be bland in your feedback. That is the message from top choreographer/director Chris Cuming who is currently bringing his creative input to bear on a revival of the classic musical Top Hat.
The classic story of Broadway star Jerry Travers and his pursuit of society beauty Dale Tremont returns to the Norwich Theatre Royal, the latest of Norfolk and Norwich Operatic Society's always highly anticipated annual productions.
With its huge reliance on being able to deliver a host of dance styles and its fast on-stage pace, it isn't an easy show to direct, but Chris loves a challenge and has a strong background in community theatre.
It was something he was heavily involved in when he was younger before going to drama school and starting his professional career as a teacher.
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Being a freelance brings with it a need to take on lots of work and so, as well as assisting on various shows, he has also continued to get involved in a number of community shows.
Chris said: 'I have always done them because, as a creative you get complete and utter freedom. In the professional world, there are lots more restrictions and realities around a product. That is what was really exciting. When you work with people who give up their time, there is a whole different language and you go on a real journey with it.'
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His involvement in Top Hat started with a meeting with the N&NOS chairman David Pulling at a summer school and the pair realising they had a mutual passion for creating work which features a wide variety of people from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Chris said: 'You find that every member of the company wants the show to be brilliant. Some of the guys who were in the show were not the best tap dancers at the beginning but we wanted to give people belief. My job is also to make the show look brilliant. The advantage we have is that we have a lot more people working on the show on stage as well as a large orchestra. This means we can make key scenes like Venice at the start of Act 2 look full and create a show that is really magical.'
There are pros and cons though, and does Chris worry that there may be more people in the cast but they don't have the abilities of a touring company?
'Those who are not so skilled will work harder, and my job is to help the weaker performers develop and grow,' he says. 'What is great about the Norfolk and Norwich Operatic Society is that it has lots of performers who go off to drama school and then come back.
'It is not just about putting on a show. It is also a platform for future talent. It is also a platform for me. After all, when would I get the chance to direct Top Hat? I am being given a big theatre, a beautiful set, an orchestra and a cast drawn from across the community.'
Chris is keen to stress this will not be a cut-and-paste of previous Top Hat productions giving him the chance to focus more on the character side of the people in the show.
There are also some interesting casting choices with locally-based performer Alex Green taking on the lead role of Jerry Travers, and he looks very different to previous interpretations of the part. 'The great thing is that we can do what we want with Jerry. People who have played him in the past have been 6ft with that Fred Astaire look. Here we have someone who looks very different to that but is energetic, a great actor, has a great voice and brings something completely different to the role.'
The rehearsals have also given Chris the chance to explore the characterisation in more detail as well as bring out more of the farcical nature of the show.
'We have approached Top Hat from a character point of view rather than a dance one. I wanted everything to be character driven and approach it as a play with songs and standards, which just happens to have dancing in it too,' he said.
Chris has had support through the creative process from a regular collaborator Scott Hunter. The pair have worked together on a number of projects including the stage hit Yank and Chris finds the chance to bounce off someone else is invaluable.
He explains: 'Working in theatre can be very lonely. You can be stood in a room leading 40 people and it is great to have someone to turn to and say 'what do you think?' What is great about Scott and I is we have such a connection as human beings and friends, and we know what each other is thinking.'
Ultimately, while Chris knows he isn't working with a cast who are working professionally, he wants them to be amazed by the quality of the show.
'The budget for it is as good as a lot of fringe theatre and it allows you to do things that a lot of shows can't do,' he said.
He adds: 'I want people to have clear opinions of the show. My worst nightmare is for someone to say it is lovely.'
• Top Hat is at Norwich Theatre Royal from January 22-27, 7.30pm, 2.30pm Jan 23/27, £23.50-£7, 01603 630000, theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk