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Cast: Dean Goes to School, Escoffery’s King, Gigi

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EastEnders star Letitia Dean (pictured) will play the role of Ms Darbus in the London production of Disney screen-to-stager High School Musical, which runs from 1 July to 31 August 2008 (previews from 28 June) at the Hammersmith Apollo (See News, 28 Jan 2008).

Dean, best known for her long-running portrayal of Sharon Watts in EastEnders, says she is “absolutely delighted” to be playing the high school teacher role, adding “this will be the first time I have been on a musical stage since I was in Annie when I was thirteen”. She was one of the original cast of EastEnders when it launched in 1985, and went on to become of its most recognisable faces. Last year she also proved a hit with viewers in the BBC series Strictly Come Dancing, and appeared as a member of the show’s live tour.

The stage adaptation of High School Musical tells how Troy, a popular high school basketball star, and Gabriella, a shy, academically gifted newcomer, discover they share a secret passion for singing. When they sign up together to audition for the lead roles in the school musical, it threatens East High's rigid social order and sends their peers into uproar.

Since its US premiere in January 2006, the made-for-TV Disney movie High School Musical has gone on to become a global phenomenon. Winner of two Emmy Awards, the soundtrack has been certified Double Platinum in the UK alone, while DVD sales have topped 1.6 million. The screen sequel, High School Musical 2, broke TV viewing records in both the US and UK.

High School Musical features a book by David Simpatico (adapted from the original film script by Peter Barsocchini) and a score which includes all the songs from the original chart-topping soundtrack, including the UK hit singles “Breaking Free” and “We’re All in This Together”.

The production is directed by Jeff Calhoun, whose credits include the award-winning Broadway revivals of Grease and Big River. The original US choreographer Lisa Stevens is also on board, with set design by Kenneth Foy, costumes by Wade Laboissonniere, lighting by Ken Billington, sound by Rick Clarke and musical production by Bryan Louiselle.

The London production of High School Musical runs simultaneously with a separate 11-month, 29-venue UK regional tour which launched in January (See News, 3 Jul 2007).

In other musical casting news, another Disney adaptation, West End long-runner The Lion King, has announced several new principal cast members. Shaun Escoffery, who was Olivier and Whatsonstage.com Award-nominated for his performance in last year’s Parade at the Donmar Warehouse, will play Mufasa, while Gloria Onitiri, a member of the 2002 company, returns to play Nala.

The Lion King premiered on Broadway at the New Amsterdam Theatre in November 1997. The original Broadway creative team, led by director and designer Julie Taymor, reunited for the London production, with choreography by Garth Fagan, costumes by Taymor, puppetry and masks by Taymor and Michael Curry and set design by Richard Hudson. The musical opened on 19 October 1999 (previews from 24 September) at the West End’s Lyceum Theatre, where it’s currently booking until 28 September 2008.

Escoffery and Onitiri are joined by fellow new cast members George Asprey (as Scar), Andile Gumbi (Simba) and Cameron Pow (Zazu), who will all start performances on 22 April 2008.

Elsewhere, full casting has been announced for this year’s Open Air musical in Regent’s Park, artistic director Timothy Sheader’s revival of Lerner and Loewe’s Gigi (See News, 25 Jan 2008). In addition to Lisa O'Hare (as Gigi), Topol (Honore) and Millicent Martin (Mamita), the cast features Paul Bentley (Dufresne), Thomas Borchert (Gaston) and Amy Ellen Richardson (Liane). The ensemble comprises: Rachel Archer, Jennie Dale, Nina French, Francis Haugen, Shaun Henson, David Lucas, Jo Morris, Zoe Rainey, Myra Sands, Laura Scott, Kate Tydman and Kerry Washington.

Based on the 1945 French novel by Colette, Gigi is set in Paris at the turn of the 20th century and tells the story of a teenage girl being groomed by her grandmother and aunt to become a courtesan. Bachelor and bon vivant Gaston Lachaille becomes captivated by Gigi as she matures from wild adolescent to poised young lady.

Colette’s novel was made into a French film in 1948, then adapted as a stage play in 1951, with a Broadway production starring Audrey Hepburn, which was then adapted as an Oscar-winning 1958 movie musical, starring Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier. Fifteen years later, the musical crossed back over to the stage, opening on Broadway in 1978. The original West End production opened at the Lyric Theatre in 1985.

The new production runs from 14 August to 13 September 2008 (previews from 6 August) at the Open Air Theatre, as part of Sheader’s inaugural season as the venue’s artistic director. It’s choreographed by Stephen Mear.

- by Theo Bosanquet


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