‘Anything Goes’ star Kerry Ellis: “I never thought I’d be tapping centre stage as Reno Sweeney”
Muscial theatre leading lady Kerry Ellis is a household name. Since making her West End debut in My Fair Lady over 20 years ago, her theatre CV now boasts some of the biggest musicals around: Wicked, We Will Rock You, and Cats, to name a few.
She’s crossed over into the music industry, notably collaborating with Brian May and touring with Queen. She's also released three solo studio albums — Ellis definitely keeps busy.
So playing Reno Sweeney, a nightclub singer and evangelist who performs all over the world, is a role that's akin to her own career. In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking Ellis inspired the character's creation nearly 90 years ago.
“I actually started my career out on a ship,” reflected Ellis. “I think my first job was on the Voyager of the Seas. I’ve been on ships since as a guest entertainer throughout the years and honestly, it's the most fun thing. I love getting on there. I love doing my show.”
Now, Ellis takes centre stage in Anything Goes. The Cole Porter musical delighted audiences at the Barbican last year, and saw Kathleen Marshall earn her first Olivier win for its eye-catching choreography. So with Anything Goes docking at the Barbican for a second summer season, what else can we expect from the hit Golden Age musical?
We spoke to Ellis about putting on the tap shoes for the first time in her career, as well as what goes into playing Reno Sweeney. Ellis also contemplates on the ever-changing theatre industry and what she's observed in the past 20 years.
Did you get the chance to see Anything Goes last year?
I did. I saw it in one of the last weeks. I saw Rachel York and I loved it. I was blown away by the energy, the class, and I couldn't remember how many of Cole Porter's hits were in one place. Obviously I loved the tap routines and dancing too, but I'd forgotten how funny it was. It really made me laugh and it also felt very fresh and current. Even though it's a classic, slightly older musical, I really loved it. Now, I’m a part of it! It's such a joy.
Typically, we haven't really seen you in dance roles like Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes. What made you want to take on Reno?
It’s partly the challenge. I mean, I hadn't put a pair of tap shoes on for 25 years. The last time I tapped was when I was at college. And yeah, I have danced a little bit, like when I did Cats, but you wouldn't have seen me because I was hidden in the company.
I love to push myself. I love to take on new things that take me out of my comfort zone. To do something like this is so different. You know, there wasn't the big 11 o'clock belty number, but there was lots of company dance numbers.
Reno’s very funny. She's very rounded. She's quite vulnerable at times. I didn't think I'd get to play her in my lifetime because these roles have to come up when you're the right age, available and around, and they want you, and lots of boxes have to be ticked.
Do you see yourself in Reno?
Absolutely. There’s so many similarities that I can relate to her with: she's a nightclub singer, she's a performer, she's an evangelist. She's known within her circle, but she's also quite vulnerable. She's looking for love, as we all are.
I've been out there and I've done my own shows. I've travelled without my family while touring the country. It's a little bit lonely and you're there being admired by lots of people, but your loved ones are not with you. I've been there, so I can relate, in a sense.
She's so much fun to play, and I get to do lots of different things. I get to do a tap number, I get to sing “Anything Goes,” and then we do “Blow Gabriel Blow,” which is a huge dance number. It was a bit daunting at first because I hadn't danced like that in public for a long time. So I was like, I need to up my fitness so that I can manage it. I had a couple of tap classes before I went into the show just to bring back my tap. But I'm just loving every minute.
This Anything Goes cast features some from last year and obviously like yourself, some new members. How is it working alongside one another?
We’ve got such an amazing company who are just a dream. We’ve got the lovely Denis Lawson, who I play opposite as Moonface Martin, and Simon Callow [as Elisha Whitney], who is hilarious with Bonnie Langford [as Evangeline Harcourt]. And then there's some returning cast from last year, Haydn [Oakley, as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh], Carly [Mercedes Dyer as Irma], and some of the ensemble too, which means that they had such a nice time that they wanted to come back!
I've not done a comedy like this for a long time, either. It's fast-paced, and I guess I was a little nervous about being opposite somebody like Denis Lawson, who is such an icon — these are big actors. Then I've got to dance in front of Bonnie Langford! But they were so wonderful and they couldn't be more supportive and lovely.
Kathleen Marshall, who is our director and choreographer and who won an Olivier for the choreography — and rightly so — was very keen to make it a new take on the show. It’s very similar because there's a blueprint there. But she wanted us to have the freedom to bring ourselves to it and to bring our own interpretations to the show. So that was really nice because we did have that freedom, and we still have that.
You’ve been touring Anything Goes across the country. How have audiences responded?
Oh my God, it's been really special to see people sat together without masks on so you can see their faces. We end Act One with “Anything Goes,” and people just fly onto their feet and they scream and they go mental. And then with “Blow Gabriel Blow” in the middle, it blows my mind.
I've done these big shows like Wicked and we will get that big audience response, but people really get involved and on board with the characters and with the story, and they laugh a lot here.
That's what people have needed after the last two years, and with what's going on in the world at the moment, it's not easy for everybody. So to have that tonic, that release, that escapism for a couple of hours is exactly what people need. The costumes and the dancing just gives you everything you want.
I think it was said in the press last year, this show should be prescribed on the NHS because it's such a feel-good show, and we feel it on stage and the audience.
What are your favourite moments in the show?
Oh, there's so many! I love “You’re The Top”, which I think is because we [Ellis performs the song with Samuel Edwards] just have a lot of fun and it's playful. I love “Anything Goes”, of course. I never thought that at 43 I'd be tapping at the front centre in front of thousands of people, so that's a real moment for me.
I love Denis’s “Be Like The Bluebird”, and I love Haydn Oakley as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. We have so much fun in ["The Gypsy in Me"].
You’ve starred in many West End shows. Has anything changed in the industry from then to now?
There's been so much change along the way. The obvious one is more recently, there's so much more diversity, which is great. I think people are really trying to do the right thing and to be inclusive and to think outside the box, which I think you can in theatre. There is scope to do that, so we can play other people. We can make-believe, we can change the rules, we can turn things upside down.
The styles of musicals has changed too, as well as the type of music. But then suddenly, you bring back the classics, and people go mental for it. So there's still that variety.
I think we've struggled hugely too. The industry has been hugely affected by the pandemic and we're still recovering. We're still fighting people's confidence of coming out. Producers have to be really brave to commit to shows that they don't know are going to work or not.
Years ago, it was still the same, but [producers] kind of knew roughly what would work, whereas now, we just don't know. It's a tough time for everybody. And there's all these people, obviously, that are so brilliantly talented on- and offstage that need to work and want to work and it's just settling it all down again.
There's a real want and need out there for live theatre. We're definitely experiencing that as we go around the country, especially with such a big show. This is a really big touring show. And people are so grateful and want to watch it.
The marketing has changed too. We all have social media now. So that's another whole other entity that we haven't dealt with before, and utilising that and making the most of it is important.
Anything Goes is coming back to London for a second year. If you saw it last year, what can you expect this year?
Predominantly, it's a new company, and the show has a different feel to it. It's still a beautiful, flawless, glamorous, feel-good show. But it's being told differently.
Sutton Foster is a legend. You know, she's fabulous and wonderful, but we are so different. And I hope that people will come and support us. It’s also a limited run, and that makes it special. It’s a moment in time that's not coming back.
Photo credit: Kerry Ellis in Anything Goes (Photo courtesy of production)
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