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Brief Encounter with ... Top Hat's Gavin Lee

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Gavin Lee recently took over from Tom Chambers as Jerry Travers in Top Hat at the West End's Aldwych Theatre.

Lee, who originated the role of Bert in the London production of Mary Poppins, for which he was nominated for an Olivier Award, stars opposite Kristen Beth Williams as Dale Tremont.

Based on the classic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film, Top Hat centres on a famous American tap dancer who arrives in London to appear in his first West End show and meets the girl of his dreams, following her across Europe in an attempt to win her heart.

The score includes classic Irving Berlin songs "Cheek to Cheek", "Puttin' On the Ritz", "Top Hat" and "Isn't This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)", which Lee and Williams performed at last month's Whatsonstage.com Awards (watch highlights here).

Gavin Lee & Kristen Beth Williams in Top Hat

You've been with the show for a few weeks now - how's it been going so far?
It's been a real eye opener for me learning a new show again. I've done Mary Poppins in various countries for eight years, so to suddenly put on my rehearsal tap shoes again, pick up a script and try to learn it all in four weeks was really hard. And of course my brain is eight years older - I'm 41 now, so I can't pick up tap steps like my younger brain used to. But, after a rather stressful start I can honestly say that I'm finding my feet.

Did Tom Chambers leave a big pair of tap shoes to fill?
He did, and it wasn't only Tom but Mr Fred Astaire as well - they're just such big shoes to fill. I came to see the show back in October when I first got offered the role. I flew over from New York for the day and loved it and thought Tom did a great job along with Summer Strallen and the whole cast. But it was nice to go back to New York and finish off my run with Poppins and kind of forget about it for a while and come back to start finding Jerry Travers for myself. I needed to try and make him my own rather than trying to do a carbon copy of either Mr Astaire or Mr Chambers.

Was it emotional saying goodbye to Bert?
It really was. Bert gave me so much over the past eight years - I saw so many people and so many places that I would never otherwise have seen. I'll be always so grateful to Cameron Mackintosh and Disney for keeping me on for so long. Usually a producer, however much they like an actor, after a few years they want some fresh blood in the show. So I feel very lucky that every couple of years they offered me a different place to go with it - I did two years in London, two years on Broadway and then two years on the first national tour of the US before coming back to Broadway. So it really became my life, especially considering that my wife was with the show these past four years. But I'm relishing the challenge of a new role - when the opportunity came up on Top Hat I grabbed it with both hands.

How big a hero is Fred Astaire to you?
Fred and Gene Kelly are the two that I used to watch growing up. I would watch them and just wish I could be half as good as them. When I first got offered the role, my first question was "are they expecting me to be Fred Astaire?". But I'm glad to say they're not expecting me to do an impression of Fred because, well , no-one can dance like him. That being said, I actually preferred watching Gene Kelly as a kid because he's more willing to make himself look silly on screen. I try to make Jerry Travers slightly more physically funny than Fred Astaire played him.

Do you think the resurgence of dance shows is due to the Strictly effect?
I think we all have to be very grateful for those shows that have brought dancing, and in a way musicals, back to the TV. It's just fabulous the amount of dancing that's on the TV, and that the public at home are so interested in it and they want to go and see it live. I love that the genre I've done all these years, 1930s-style dance musicals, is making a comeback.

How did you first get into dancing?
My story is very much like Mike in A Chorus Line! My sister, who's three years older than me, used to come home from dance class and I used to say "what did you do today, show me show me show me" as an annoying little eight-year old brother, and she'd show me and I'd just ponce around and do it behind her. So I started going to the classes myself and, showing my age, my first classes were in disco dancing - never mind Gene Kelly, I wanted to be John Travolta! And I just carried on doing that and kept doing that until I was 16. I guess by about 14 I knew that I wanted to go off to train properly when I left school and that's what I did.

How do you keep yourself fit?
I've learned by experience. When I first started with Bert, doing "Supercal" and "Jolly Holiday" and "Step In Time", it absolutely killed me. I wanted to come off and be sick in a bucket, it was really that exhausting. But as you go along, you learn about your breathing and how to hold back in certain routines. And you also learn about food - when to eat before and after a show. It took me quite a few years to work out that eating pasta an hour before the show is not a good thing because it sits in your stomach and makes you tired for the whole show. But I'm still learning - with Top Hat I still come off stage and I'm like "get me some oxygen". But I know that within a month or so, even in the few weeks that we've been up and running, it's already got easier.


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