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Billy Elliot choreographer very Proud and looking forward to seeing Ross Noble's theatrical debut

Lee Proud will be in the crowd when the Cramlington comic makes his first appearance in the UK tour of The Producers at Sunderland Empire

Lee Proud
Lee Proud

Lee Proud is just back from Reykjavik, where he has been re-choreographing an Icelandic production of Lee Hall’s smash hit musical Billy Elliot.

‘Billy Elliot on Ice?’ I ask, part horrified and part excitedly curious at the prospect.

“No, but don’t give them any ideas,” laughs the Geordie choreographer and director. “Stephen Daldry might just go for that!”

Having been the show’s resident choreographer for four years until he went freelance, Lee has maintained strong links with the long-running West End production, which has a string of international incarnations too.

But much as I love Billy Elliot in all its forms, that’s not what we’re supposed to be talking about on this occasion.

A tweet from Lee had prompted the phonecall, and had itself been prompted by a piece I wrote last week about comedian Ross Noble joining the cast of The Producers tour a few days early in order that he could make his musical theatre debut in front of a North East crowd at Sunderland Empire on May 15.

A little while after the story been circulated online, Lee got in touch to see if I knew he had been the choreographic brains behind the touring revival of the show - based on Mel Brooks’ 1968 Oscar-winning movie - which took Broadway and the West End by storm between 2001 and 2007.

Manuel Harlan Jason Manford as Leo Bloom and Tiffany Graves as Ulla
Jason Manford as Leo Bloom and Tiffany Graves as Ulla

I hadn’t been aware of this fact and so was only too happy to find out more.

“I’d been doing Carousel in London and Matthew White (the director of The Producers) saw the show and thought it was fantastic. I was in New York at the time so the producer came out to see me for a chat and that was pretty much that,” explains Lee, whose used to teach jazz at Newcastle College and has since notched up a CV which includes work on shows like Guys and Dolls, Mack and Mabel, Victor Victoria, a new production of Mary Poppins, The Revenge of Sherlock Holmes and Ghost The Musical.

“This show is a complete dream to get your hands on as a choreographer,” he gushes about The Producers. “It’s everything choreography should be and it has been brilliant for me to work on.

“It’s an absolute homage to all those big Broadway musicals. If you’re a musical theatre fan, you’ll be able to recognise them. If you don’t, it won’t matter because you’ll think it’s brilliant,” he laughs.

As fans of the 1968 film and/or subsequent stage show (aka pretty much everyone who has seen them) will know, the plot finds timid accountant Leo Bloom (played on the tour by comic Jason Manford) being recruited by impoverished New York producer Max Bialystock (Cory English) to help him pull off Broadway’s greatest scam.

Together they aim to produce the worst show ever and run away with millions. But they learn that showbusiness can always find a way to kick you in the teeth.

After signing up to work on the show, which arrives on Wearside on May 11, Lee said he was as surprised as anyone when he heard that Cramlington-born Ross - who has made a career out of never having a script anywhere near his shows - had been signed up to take over from Phill Jupitus part way through tour and take on the unforgettable part of Franz Liebkind - the former Nazi who takes credit for big number Springtime For Hitler in Max and Leo’s show.

Comedian Ross Noble
Comedian Ross Noble

“I was really surprised when I heard he was going to be doing it, but absolutely delighted that he would be getting involved,” Lee says. “I never dreamt our worlds would meet and we would get to work together. In rehearsals we found out we had a lot in common. He used to go to Newcastle College where I used to work; there are lots of people we both know and pubs we like to go to.

“There’s a bond from people from the North East. When you hear that accent, you naturally gravitate towards each other and can relate to them straight away.

“I’m going to Bristol on Friday to look at the dress rehearsals. The great thing is, Ross came to rehearsals in London and learned the material with Phill. He took to it well, he was very open minded about everything.

“Their shows have got the same blueprint, but they’ll make them very different because they’re very different people both physically and stylistically. I can’t wait to see him in the role.”

Lee, who will be coming up to Sunderland to see Ross’ first performance, admits having accomplished stand up comics in the cast comes with its anxieties.

“The danger with this show is that they are used to holding a stage without a script... so there’s always that thought that they might go off piste a little bit. They’re clever enough to do that of course, but they’ve been very good and sticking faithfully to the original script. But who knows what Ross is going to do? Once they’re on stage, you can’t stop them.”

* The Producers is at Sunderland Empire from May 11-16, with Ross Noble taking over from Phill Jupitus in the role of Franz Liebkind from May 15. For tickets, visit www.atgtickets.com or call 0844 871 3022.

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