Having been anecdotally warned not to get her hopes up, when Zoe Birkett got the news her Green Card application had been rubber-stamped, she couldn’t have felt luckier.
Within weeks she’d found a tenant for her London home and made plans to leave for New York – more specifically to chance her considerable on-stage talents on Broadway – in February 2015.
And then the phone call came asking her to take a swing at her dream role.
Anyone who has followed the 14-year career of Consett-born Zoe to date will need no telling of her devotion to Whitney Houston. The first time we saw her as a smiley 16-year-old on ITV’s 2001 talent search Pop Idol (a precursor to The X Factor), she was singing Whitney classics such as One Moment in Time, I Wanna Dance With Somebody and (of course) I Will Always Love You.
They served her well. She reached the final of the competition which was eventually won by Will Young. But back to the phone call, which was enough to make Zoe take a rain-check on her planned move to America.
“Oh my god, I’d never even had an audition for The Bodyguard before last summer and it had been in the West End for ages,” says the now 30-year-old Zoe. “And here they were, asking me to come in. There’s no way I could have said no. Not a chance.”
And it seems the producers of the touring production of the West End hit show – including Wallsend-born Michael Harrison – felt the same way.
She was quickly signed up to share the lead role of Rachel Marron (made famous by Houston in the 1992 movie which took the world by storm) with fellow talent show graduate Alexandra Burke, who won The X Factor in 2008.
For anyone unfamiliar with the plot, it sees former secret service agent turned bodyguard Frank Farmer hired to protect demanding diva superstar Rachel from an unknown stalker. As the drama unfolds, the pair fall in love.
Zoe is taking care of all matinee duties, as well as selected evening performances, throughout the mammoth tour, which kicked off in February and is scheduled to run until March 2016.
As well as singing classics from the best-selling film soundtrack, including Queen of the Night, Run to You, I Have Nothing and, of course, the iconic cover of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You, the stage musical also incorporates a host of tracks from Houston’s platinum-plated back catalogue.
All of Zoe’s audition favourites as well, as So Emotional, Saving All My Love and I’m Your Baby Tonight get a belt out.
I spoke to Zoe in October when her casting was announced, and to say she was excited would be an understatement of ridiculous proportions. “Are you kidding? It’s a dream come true,” she gushed. “You pretty much get to sing the whole of Whitney’s classic back catalogue. I can’t wait and still can’t quite believe it.”
When we catch up a few weeks into the tour, I wonder how the reality of getting her dream job is playing out.
“It has been amazing,” she says, breaking off from a lazy Sunday she’s spending with Alexandra in Aberdeen. “Truth be told, even though we’re a few weeks in, when I sing I Will Always Love You, I still break down.
“I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not in tears all the way through the song, but you know that bit when the key change happens after the big drum boom (EVERYONE knows that bit), well, we go up on a lift. Every time, the audience are up on their feet clapping. It’s such a special and surreal moment. When I get to the end of the song, I have to stop before the last note to look around.
“Then as soon as we go into the black out, I’m bawling my eyes out.”
It’s fair to assume emotions will be running even higher when the show comes to Newcastle Theatre Royal for a two-and-a-bit-week run from April 1.
“I will be a wreck,” she laughs. “I’ve got around 70 family and friends coming on Easter Saturday. I can’t wait.”
Among the We Love Zoe portion of the audience will be the dancing and singing teachers from Amanda McGlynn Academy in Middlesbrough, the Lorraine Murray Dance School in Consett and Stagecoach in Darlington who taught Zoe until she set off for London at just 16. After pursuing a pop career for a couple of years, Zoe opted for a musical theatre one which has served her well ever since.
She’s enjoyed roles in a string of West End shows including Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Hair and Thriller Live.
“Ever since I left, people back home have been so lovely and interested in what I’ve been up to,” she says.
“It has been such a long time since I’ve done a big tour, so to be coming back to the North East starring in such a massive show... I’m really happy I get the chance to show everyone how much I’ve grown and learned. And show my mum and dad why sometimes I can’t talk to them because I’m on vocal rest!
“It’s also nice to have some time up there before I go off to New York next year. I postponed the trip for a year to do this – of course I did – but I’m still planning to go out there and see what I can do. I’ve always wanted to go to Broadway and was always taught to go for it. That’s what I’ve done so far and it’s worked out pretty well.
“When you have to pinch yourself going into work, you must be doing something right.”
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