Singer Zoe Birkett grew up loving Whitney Houston, so when she was picking out a song to perform for the inaugural Pop Idol auditions back in 2001, she knew exactly what she’d be singing.
I Will Always Love You was the then 16-year-old’s track of choice, and it served her well. After sailing through the selection process, the Consett-born teenager made it all the way through to the final five of the then groundbreaking TV talent show which ended up making a pop star out of winner Will Young, as well as runner up Gareth Gates.
“I sang Whitney songs pretty much every week on Pop Idol,” laughs the now 29-year-old Zoe.
“There was my first audition, then I sang One Moment in Time to get into the final 10, then on the first week of live shows, I sang I will Always Love You again and then I Wanna Dance With Somebody. I was such a massive fan of hers - and still am.”
One can only imagine Zoe’s delight when she got the call telling her she’d be bringing Whitney’s most famous film role to the stage when The Bodyguard Musical UK tour kicks off next year.
“Are you kidding? It’s a dream come true,” she gushes. “You pretty much get to sing the whole of Whitney’s classic back catalogue. I can’t wait.”
The multi-award-winning musical is based on the smash hit nineties film starring the aforementioned Ms Houston opposite Kevin Costner. Next year will see the production hit the road for the first time following its sell-out West End run.
Zoe will be sharing the lead role of Rachel Marron with fellow talent show graduate, Alexandra Burke, who was crowned X Factor winner in 2008.
While Alexandra, who took the role during the show’s residency at the capital’s Adelphi Theatre, will take care of evening performances, Zoe will make sure the audiences will always love the matinees.
“I get to perform three times a week and I’ve also got the full runs in Stoke and Southend where I’ll be doing eight shows a week,” she says. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to be doing it.”
For anyone unfamiliar with the plot, the story sees former secret service agent turned bodyguard, Frank Farmer, hired to protect demanding diva superstar Rachel Marron from an unknown stalker. As the drama unfolds, the pair fall in love.
While The Bodyguard movie featured a soundtrack featuring classics 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 incorporates a host of tracks from Houston’s pre-Bodyguard career too, including So Emotional, One Moment in Time, Saving All My Love, I’m Your Baby Tonight and I Wanna Dance with Somebody.
“For me, Whitney Houston is the biggest vocalist of all time. She has one of the biggest female ranges I’ve ever heard. It’s going to be a challenge, but one I’m totally up for,” says Zoe.
Since her introduction to the millions watching the first series of Pop Idol, Zoe followed a flirt with the pop charts in 2003 with a string of West End appearances in shows including Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Hair and Thriller Live. Other theatre credits include the Acid Queen in Tommy and Maureen in Rent.
“Although people first heard about me through Pop Idol, I actually trained in musical theatre,” she says. “I’m a stage school kid. When I got the opportunity to do Pop Idol, that was like a dream come true because I’d always wanted to have some music in the charts. But I’d always done musical theatre and loved it.
“I was so thrilled when I heard they were doing a musical of The Bodyguard. I’m going to be studying the film for the next couple of months until rehearsals start.”
That is when she’s not starring in pantomime.
“I know! I’ve got this week off where I’ll be going to Venice with my partner and then seeing my family in the North East for a few days, then I’m straight into panto.”
Zoe is starring in Sleeping Beauty in Bromley over the festive period and will be segueing into rehearsals for The Bodyguard.
So she’ll be going from playing the Wicked Queen to portraying the Queen of the Night.
The production will be at Newcastle Theatre Royal in April and Zoe says her family are likely to be making up much of the matinee audience crowd.
“My mum and dad have got coaches coming along,” she laughs. “I was on stage at the Theatre Royal with the show What A Feeling when I had my 21st birthday. They brought on a cake for me. It was really amazing.
“But coming back and getting to sing these songs - especially I Will Always Love You - there... I know it’s going to be even more special.”
- The Bodyguard plays Newcastle Theatre Royal from April 1 to 18. Matinees on Thursdays, Saturdays and Wednesday April 15. To book, call 08448 11 21 21 or visit www.theatreroyal.co.uk