HIGH

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

and had din­ner with pro­ducer John Frost and Rodgers & Ham­mer­stein Or­ga­ni­za­tion chief ex­ec­u­tive Ted Chapin, who is in town for South Pa­cific. I watch as he folds his gan­gly, bas­ket­baller’s frame into a wait­ing car, head­ing off for a ra­dio in­ter­view. Rob­bins once told him never to waste a sec­ond. Mitchell, it seems, has taken the ad­vice to heart.

Mitchell is in Sydney for a week to over­see re­hearsals for the Aus­tralian de­but of Legally Blonde, the mu­si­cal the­atre adaptation of the block­buster 2001 com­edy star­ring Reese Wither­spoon. Mitchell, who has un­der his belt The Rocky Hor­ror Show, Dirty Rot­ten Scoundrels and The Full Monty among other shows, is still in per­pet­ual-mo­tion mode when I catch up with him a few days later at the ABC’s Ul­timo head­quar­ters. He knows Legally Blonde in­ti­mately, hav­ing di­rected and chore­ographed its 2007 Broad­way de­but and its Olivier award­win­ning West End in­car­na­tion.

With rain­bow base­ball cap pulled low on his fore­head, he takes the lead cast through an in­ten­sive read-through of the script, re­as­sur­ing a ner­vous Lucy Du­rack, the show’s star, when she flubs a line and grin­ning at He­len Dal­limore’s rol­lick­ing New Jersey ac­cent. He jumps up as the hour ticks over and leads the en­tire ensem­ble through a joy­fully noisy cheer­lead­ing scene com­plete with star jumps, shiny trom­bones and whirling flags. The pace is fast and fu­ri­ous.

Dur­ing lunch break in a re­hearsal room dec­o­rated with, among other things, a mono­grammed golf bag, pink pom-poms, blonde wigs, dog cages for the show’s chi­huahua stars and de­signer hand­bags, he stretches out those long legs and tucks into a sand­wich. There’s an earnest, al­most sweetly old-fash­ioned boy scout air about him, but it’s off­set by a cer­tain re­mote­ness: Legally Blonde song­writer Nell Ben­jamin once de­scribed him as a ‘‘ kinder, gen­tler au­to­crat’’.

Un­der that smil­ing face and cheeky camp­ness is a per­fec­tion­ist’s frus­tra­tion with flaws. Though it’s not some­thing he’d ever do, he un­der­stands why Rob­bins used to ‘‘ go crazy’’ and ex­plode at hap­less per­form­ers.

Mitchell’s for­mi­da­ble work ethic stems from lessons learned early in life. As a child he would bot­tle spaghetti sauce and pick grapes, to­ma­toes and as­para­gus on his grand­par­ents’ farm be­cause ‘‘ if you wanted some­thing you had to earn it’’. There’s a strong tribal loy­alty, be it to fam­ily or old school­friends, and also some raw, sad depths. At one point he talks with dev­as­tat­ing can­dour about los­ing a col­lege boyfriend and as many as eight close friends to AIDS be­fore he was 30. ‘‘ Can you imag­ine?’’ he asks qui­etly.

One of a small, ex­clu­sive breed of so-called ‘‘ hy­phen­ates’’ — di­rec­tor-chore­g­ra­phers typ­i­fied by mu­si­cal the­atre le­gends Rob­bins, Bennett and Bob Fosse in the past and Su­san Stro­man to­day — Mitchell has forged an im­pres­sive Broad­way track record dur­ing the past two decades. In 2005 he was one of the first chore­og­ra­phers to have no fewer than three hit Broad­way shows run­ning si­mul­ta­ne­ously and he won the Tony the same year for his chore­og­ra­phy for the re­vival of La Cage aux Folles.

His fans and back­ers range from pro­duc­ing heavy­weight Hal Luftig and reg­u­lar col­lab­o­ra­tor Jack O’Brien to Howard Pan­ter, head of the Am­bas­sador The­atre Group, who last year an­nounced a part­ner­ship with Mitchell to form Jerry Mitchell Pro­duc­tions. This will see Mitchell di­rect­ing, cre­at­ing and pro­duc­ing work for the pow­er­ful British group.

With his re­laxed con­fi­dence, it’s easy to for­get it has been only five years since Mitchell first got his shot as a di­rec­tor on Broad­way. Start­ing on the scene as a dancer in 1980, he made his way slowly up the ranks, tak­ing on small roles, mak­ing cof­fee for di­rec­tors, giv­ing up his week­ends to work on shows, al­ways keep­ing an eye out for op­por­tu­ni­ties. A keen stu­dent, he hasn’t for­got­ten a sin­gle les­son. From Hair­spray’s John Wa­ters he learned the im­por­tance of au­then­tic­ity in chore­og­ra­phy. Wa­ters told him to go back and study the old

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