Starlight Express and Mean Girls announcements showed casting direction at its finest

Two big companies were unveiled last week

Top: The cast of Starlight Express, © Pamela Raith, Bottom: The cast of Mean Girls, supplied by the production

Two major musical ensemble cast announcements for London summer shows dropped within an hour of each other last week – Mean Girls and Starlight Express.

Possibly a Barbenheimer moment for musical theatre fans, both were exciting for a variety of different reasons. In the case of Luke Sheppard’s new production of Starlight Express, the casting team at Pearson has five performers making their professional debuts in leading roles – rising talents that will surely make names for themselves in the future. Seeing their new takes on classic characters brings with it a lot of intrigue.

Considering the production has spawned so many leading lights over its long lifespan (Jane Krakowski was famously in the first Starlight ensemble on Broadway), it’s nice to see the production is going full steam ahead with its new London company.

Sheppard has brilliant form for championing rising stars that go on to shine across different productions. Take, for example, Tom Francis – who made his professional debut in the director’s revival of Rent within the intimate confines of the Hope Mill Theatre (also cast by Pearson), before taking over in Sheppard’s production of & Juliet in the West End (cast by Stuart Burt). Now, the Olivier Award nominee is primed to light up Broadway as he continues in his spellbinding turn as Joe Gillis in the hit production of Sunset Boulevard. 

Actress Kelly Mathieson put it best on social media when she commended the Mean Girls casting director Natalie Gallacher for selecting “pure, hardworking people that have auditioned and worked really hard”, rather than headline-grabbing household names.

From Georgina Castle, to Elèna Gyasi, to Elena Skye, to Charlie Burn, to Grace Mouat, those originating the roles in London have each proven themselves in major West End and regional productions (Mouat was part of Sheppard’s original & Juliet company, in a nice and neat way to tie everything together), and are ready to leave their marks on these famous characters and numbers. The marketing content featuring Mean Girls’ “Plastics” has already given promising signs.

Gallacher’s work on previous shows has already been hugely influential in spawning a whole raft of up-and-coming performing stars – take a look at her ensemble for Spring Awakening, which alongside established names like Laurie Kynaston and Amara Okereke included now-award-winner Stuart Thompson, Zheng Xi Yong (about to lead the UK premiere of Your Lie in April at Theatre Royal Drury Lane), and Bella Maclean, then making a professional debut and now one of the stars in the upcoming play-with-songs London Tide at the National Theatre.

It’s why we’re so happy to see our casting direction category prove so popular during the WhatsOnStage Awards voting process – casting directors play a vital creative role in shaping the feel, the execution and the whole journey for a production. The more adventurous and innovative these choices become, the more it benefits the whole performance (both on stage and on screen) community.

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Starlight Express

Performances begin: 08 June 2024

Mean Girls

Performances begin: 05 June 2024