Sharon Verghis gets caught up in di­rec­tor Jerry Mitchell’s en­ergy as he talks about Broad­way, his pro­duc­tion of and be­ing tall

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

‘ THEY are the high­est heels I’ve ever worn, 71/ inches. So when I stand in them, I’m like, seven foot tall!’’ At 193cm, Jerry Mitchell’s long frame fills the lift that is lurch­ing down­wards from the of­fices of the Gor­don Frost Or­gan­i­sa­tion in Sydney’s Hay­mar­ket. The ver­tig­i­nous heels in ques­tion, a whop­ping 19cm, fea­ture in a new mu­si­cal the­atre adaptation of the 2005 British film Kinky Boots that he’s de­but­ing in Chicago be­fore its Broad­way open­ing next year. The fa­mously hands-on di­rec­tor — ‘‘ let me be you’’ is his well-known catchcry; he’ll do any­thing from im­i­tat­ing a piece of scenery to un­leash­ing a tap rou­tine to get his point across at re­hearsal — pulls a com­i­cally ag­o­nised face as he mim­ics hob­bling along in them for the ben­e­fit of the cast back in New York.

Mitchell, 53, spills out into a sunny late win­ter’s day, arms wind­milling, still talk­ing. A Tony award-win­ning Broad­way di­rec­tor, chore­og­ra­pher, for­mer cho­rus boy and the most fa­mous ex­port of tiny Paw Paw, Michi­gan, he’s a lean, coiled streak of en­ergy with a neat grey crew cut and a spiky phys­i­cal­ity. The lat­ter in­forms ev­ery­thing from his gait to his di­rec­to­rial style, de­scribed by The New York Times critic Ben Brant­ley as all ‘‘ hyper­ki­netic ef­fu­sive­ness’’.

He’s a fast talker, too. In a lively chat up­stairs he flits from one juicy show­biz snip­pet to the next: from danc­ing near nude in a tiny loin­cloth on Broad­way (‘‘I was in in­cred­i­ble shape’’), to hang­ing out with towel-clad sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian the­atre leg­end Ann Miller in her dress­ing-room, to or­gan­is­ing a tequi­la­soaked male strip­tease that net­ted $US8000 in one night for char­ity. He has worked with ev­ery­one from the fa­mously hot-tem­pered Jerry Rob­bins who, he as­sures me with a Cheshire cat grin, ‘‘ never made me cry’’, to A Cho­rus Line’s Michael Bennett. The ‘‘ ex­tremely sweet’’ Broad­way star Ber­nadette Peters, with whom he worked on Gypsy, is one of his favourite peo­ple.

At one point, there are even some quick-fire dance moves — the wa­tusi, the hot potato, the bus stop — which he per­forms with easy grace to il­lus­trate his chore­og­ra­phy for a 2002 re­vival of Hair­spray. He talks about how Aus­tralia could be­come the new try-out hub for mu­si­cal the­atre shows, in which our cheap­ness com­pared with Broad­way is a huge plus, and ex­actly what went wrong with the British pro­duc­tion of An­drew Lloyd Web­ber’s Phan­tom of the Opera se­quel, Love Never Dies. He was the chore­og­ra­pher for its West End pre­miere and blames a lack of in­volve­ment from the writ­ers of the book.

All in all, Mitchell is a well of bound­less en­ergy. Since ar­riv­ing in Sydney the day be­fore, he has tracked down the har­bour­side res­tau­rant where he had an ‘‘ in­cred­i­ble’’ meal 11 years ago with play­wright Tom Stop­pard,

Blonde Legally

Di­rec­tor Jerry Mitchell gives fe­male lead Lucy Du­rack some tips at a re­hearsal for the mu­si­cal

in Sydney

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