Alan Burkitt wanted to be a tap dancer before he’d ever heard of Fred Astaire.
Having been signed up to tap classes at the age of five “my mum got sick of me jiggling all over the house all the time,” and been charmed by a West End production of 42nd Street, it wasn’t too long before he was entering tap competitions and dreaming of playing to full theatre houses.
“I remember after doing one competition in London when I was about 11, a lady came up to me afterwards and said ‘you’re just like a little Fred Astaire’. I looked at my mum blankly... I had no idea who she was talking about.”
Alan’s knowledge was about to be given a turbo boost.
“Mum sat me down with a box set of videos and I fell in love. He was just amazing.”
Hard to imagine then, the buzz the now 32-year-old must get from his current role - playing Jerry Travers, the part Fred Astaire made iconic in the 1935 musical film, Top Hat.
Alan, who has All England Tap Dancer of the Year on his CV, laughs. “Yeah, it doesn’t get much better than this when you do what I do. This is the dream job. It’s all downhill from here. I’ve peaked too soon.”
Packed full of Irving Berlin’s greatest hits and dripping in the glamour of old Hollywood, the multi-Olivier-Award-winning musical (Best New Musical, Best Choreography and Best Costume Design) promises to bring the magic of Fred and his long-time dancing partner, Ginger Rogers to the stage - and all in glorious technicolour too.
Having opened in the West End in 2012, the production is taking to the road and will be waltzing into Newcastle Theatre Royal on September 9 for a two-week stay.
“It’s such a beautiful show,” says Alan. “Bill Deamer’s choreography is amazing, the sets are great and the costumes... well that’s why we won all of those Olivier Awards I suppose.
“All the dancing and just the general enchantingness - I know that’s not a word,” he laughs, “but it wraps up the audience”.
As well as the obvious excitement at getting the role, I wonder whether the reality of stepping into those famous dancing shoes brought with it any trepidation.
“Not really, but that’s because I don’t feel like I’m stepping into his shoes,” says Alan, who understudied for Strictly Come Dancing champion, Tom Chambers when the show was in the West End.
“I’d be silly to try and play Fred Astaire, he’s such an idol of mine. What I’m doing is playing my version of Jerry Travers the character... I think of it more as bringing his film to life.”
That said, Alan does admit to enjoying when people make the comparison in a favourable manner... especially when those ‘people’ happen to be some of Mr Astaire’s closest relatives.
“His daughter, Ava, came to watch the show in Wimbledon... no pressure at all,” he laughs. “It was amazing to know she was there though, and she was so lovely.
“I was speaking to her and her husband afterwards and they said I had the best feet they had seen since her father. I’ll certainly take that.”
References don’t come much better.
For anyone unfamiliar with the film, which combines comedy and romance with what turned out to be some of the era’s most golden song and dance moments on the big screen, the story sees Jerry, a famous American tap dancer, arriving in London to appear in his first West End show.
He soon meets the irresistible Dale Tremont, the girl of his dreams played unforgettably in the film by Ginger Rogers, and follows her across Europe in an attempt to win her heart.
Nominated for four Academy Awards, it was the most successful picture of the nine movies Astaire and Rogers made together, breaking all box office records when it premiered at the Radio City Music Hall in 1935.
Within a few weeks, all five songs from the film occupied the top five places on the American Hit Parade, including Cheek to Cheek, Isn’t It a Lovely Day to be Caught in the Rain and Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.
It remains widely regarded as one of the greatest dance musicals of all time.
The stage adaptation pays suitable tribute to the film, as well as weaving in a further 10 numbers from Irving Berlin’s 1,200-strong back catalogue, including well-loved favourites Let’s Face the Music and Dance and Puttin’ On the Ritz.
It all results in a celebration of the era’s song, style and romance, while dazzling the audience with more than 200 beautiful costumes and breathtaking dance routines.
And any fears that the touring production wouldn’t live up to the West End incarnation can be safely put to bed, according to leading lady Charlotte Gooch, who plays Dale Tremont.
“They haven’t changed a thing. The set is the same set, a lot of the costumes are brand new because there are a lot of new members in the cast. The orchestra is the same, the size of the cast is the same.”
That would be an 11-strong orchestra and a cast of 29.
“It’s such a massive production,” says the actress. “I was worried it would be physically impossible to tour it around the country but they found a way and I’m so thrilled because it’s such a wonderful show... it deserves to be seen by lots of people.”
Charlotte, who recently played Penny in the West End production of Dirty Dancing, and who has taken the lead role of Sandy in Grease at the Theatre Royal in the past, says she can’t wait to bring Top Hat to Tyneside.
“The first two stops on the tour aren’t far out of London so not many people have had to leave home for them. Coming to Newcastle is going to feel like we’re properly on tour.
“And it’s going to be beautiful in that theatre. The sets are exquisite, the costumes are exquisite. There’s no expense spared when it comes to creating that image and style. And then there’s the music. It’s just a dream role. I mean what girl wouldn’t want to be stepping into the shows of Ginger Rogers?”
It seems the producers couldn’t have found two actors better matched for each other.
Charlotte, who cites dancing Cheek to Cheek in that feather dress with Alan as one of her favourite moments, laughs. “Alan and I have known each other for a few years and we really get on. Lots of people are talking about the chemistry we have on stage. Someone asked us the other day if we were a couple.
“I think Fred and Ginger used to get asked that all the time, so we must be doing something right!”
- Top Hat plays Newcastle Theatre Royal from September 9 to 20. For more information and bookings, call 08448 11 21 21 or visit www.theatreroyal.co.uk