Theatre: All off down the Yellow Brick Road
As a member of the cast when the Crucible premiered the musical, Everybody's Talking About Jamie, last year, Gabrielle Brooks could have been basking in the glory of the five-star reviews greeting the show's opening in the West End.
Instead she is back in Sheffield rehearsing the Crucible Christmas show, The Wizard of Oz, and has no regrets.
“I loved every moment of Jamie and especially working with a choreographer (Kate Prince) I had worked with before and adore,” she says. “But this was the chance to play a lead role in a major production.”
That’s the part of Dorothy famously played on screen by Judy Garland and Gabby has “wonderful Christmas memories of watching the film with my family.”
It’s certainly unusual casting for a black actor to play Dorothy but not unprecedented even discounting The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical (which coincidentally had its UK premiere at the Crucible in 1980).
And Gabby herself can claim: “When I was about 14 I was part of an am dram group which put on Wizard of Oz at the Lilian Baylis Theatre in London – and I played Dorothy.”
Directed by Sheffield Theatres’ artistic director, Robert Hastie, The Wizard of Oz is the classic tale of a girl swept away from a farm in Kansas in a tornado who embarks on a quest with her dog Toto and new friends The Tin Man, the Scarecrow and Lion to find the land of Oz accompanied by timeless tunes, such as Over the Rainbow and We’re Off to See the Wizard.
Choreographer and movement director’s Ewan Jones’s recent credits include Travels with my Aunt at Chichester, The Tales of Hoffman for ETO, and received a BroadwayWorld nomination for The Three Little Pigs at the Palace Theatre in the West End.
The show is designed by Janet Bird worked with Rob Hastie on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Theatr Clwyd.
The production is based on the Royal Shakespeare Company version first seen at London’s Barbican in 1987. The book is by John Kane, an actor at the RSC at the time, with the music of Harold Arlen and lyrics by EY Harburg and additional background music by Herbert Stothart.It is based on both the original novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, and the 1939 film version written by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf.
“This is a different version from the one I played before,” says Gabby. “While Rob takes into account that it should be jolly and fun he really understands the complexities of people.”
“We focus on the story. The set is amazing and the costumes are great but we put the story before anything else.”
That meant she had to give some thought into her character above the image everyone might have from the movie.
“We are saying Dorothy is 12 years old. When I sing Somewhere Over the Rainbow we have to think where she is on her journey and why she is singing those words which is important. We sit down and discuss things and what would be best for the audience.
“It’s a coming of age story from a particular point in her life. We decided that she should be 12 because she needs to be of an age where she is not too knowing. Saying that, 12-year-olds understand a lot more about the world than adults realise.”
The actor lives in Islington, North London, in the area she grew up in “among an ordinary hard-working family.”
No theatrical background, then? “I was a hyper-active child who talked too much and my mother wanted me to put my energy into something else,” she explains. “So she sent me to this drama school which was just starting up and the guy who ran it started an agency and sent us for auditions. The second one I went to was Whistle Down the Wind.”
So at the age of seven she made her West End debut. As a child actor she was also in Grange Hill on TV and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, also in the West End.
She followed that by formal training at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts but “I didn’t study musical theatre at drama school, it was straight acting.”
But as things have worked out her career has mostly involved musicals such as The Book of Mormon (Prince of Wales), I Can’t Sing (London Palladium), Our House (Savoy Theatre) and the UK tour of Avenue Q Last year she was in Lazarus, the show co-written by David Bowie, at Kings Cross Theatre). Straight drama roles have come in Red Snapper (Belgrade Theatre) and The Strangers Case (Liverpool Everyman).
Gabrielle Brooks is big on social media. “I have two blogs, one is open and the other is for a group of actors discussing important issues to do with the industry. People don’t feel comfortable sometimes about going out into the open. I wanted to create an open forum where people feel safe and able to voice things that go on whether positive or negative.”
The Wizard of Oz runs at the Crucible Theatre from December 7 to January 20.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is at the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue. Booking to April 2018.