The ac­ci­den­tal en­ter­tainer

Aus­tralian dancer-turned-soapie star-turned-chore­og­ra­pher-turned­stage vet­eran Kel­ley Abbey tells Stel­lar about the “course of glo­ri­ous ac­ci­dents” that saw her be­come a mu­si­cal theatre favourite

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy STEVEN CHEE Styling IRENE TSOLAKAS In­ter­view BREE PLAYER

Kel­ley Abbey on the “course of glo­ri­ous ac­ci­dents” that led her to the top of the mu­si­cal theatre world.

It’s hard to be­lieve sea­soned per­former Kel­ley Abbey is ner­vous about tak­ing to the stage in a few weeks for the open­ing night of Billy El­liot The Mu­si­cal. But she is. “I can’t even think about it,” the 53-year-old tells Stel­lar. “As soon as you do, you put your­self in a place of fear, and then you’re in no place to per­form.”

To Aus­tralian the­atre­go­ers, Abbey is a very fa­mil­iar face, hav­ing mas­tered act­ing, singing, dance and chore­og­ra­phy to be­come one of the most recog­nised names in the in­dus­try. She’s played lead roles in Sweet Char­ity, Grease The Arena Spec­tac­u­lar, Fame The Mu­si­cal and Hair, as well as hav­ing chore­ographed myr­iad shows. But many Aus­tralians will also re­mem­ber Abbey from her role on the prime-time soap E Street, which aired from 1989 to 1993.

Look­ing back, Abbey com­pares the se­ries – which made house­hold names of Melissa Tkautz and Si­mon Baker, and cat­a­pulted count­less pop hits to the top of the charts – to the US se­ries Glee. “There was lots of mu­sic on E Street and my char­ac­ter was a singer,” says Abbey of the show’s hey­day. “For­rest Redlich, the pro­ducer, had Westside Records, so he was pump­ing pop through our show. The girls were called The Teen Queens. I never signed a deal. He of­fered me one, but I never took it.”

Abbey grew up in Bris­bane and from the age of four, wanted noth­ing more than to dance. “At my first bal­let les­son, all the kids were cry­ing be­cause their moth­ers had left, but I cried when my

mum picked me up. I fell in love with dance very quickly.” She spent her child­hood and early teens at the stu­dio learn­ing jazz, tap, bal­let, hip hop and ev­ery other pos­si­ble style of dance on of­fer. Even­tu­ally, with her par­ents’ sup­port, she headed to Syd­ney at 17 to pur­sue a ca­reer as a pro­fes­sional dancer.

“I didn’t work the whole first year I was here. There were no dancers’ agen­cies, so I had to wait to be asked into a clique of dancers that got booked di­rectly over the phone by the chore­og­ra­pher. The first big job I got was on a film called Rebel, star­ring Matt Dil­lon and Deb­bie Byrne. That was my first ‘in’.”

E Street fol­lowed and when that came to a close, Abbey sur­prised col­leagues, fam­ily and fans by choos­ing to step away from tele­vi­sion. “Against every­one’s rec­om­men­da­tion, I au­di­tioned for West Side Story be­cause I wanted to dance so badly. I never had any ideas that I would be a lead in a show, as I didn’t con­sider my­self a singer, but I was cho­sen to un­der­study Anita, who was played by Caro­line O’Con­nor at the time.”

Abbey’s next role fell into her lap by ac­ci­dent. She was over­see­ing the dance au­di­tions for a pro­duc­tion of Sweet Char­ity in 1996 and, af­ter lis­ten­ing to the same songs over and over, found her­self singing them when she went to the bath­room. The di­rec­tor heard her and con­vinced Abbey to au­di­tion, de­spite her protests. She re­lented and au­di­tioned, only to be over­come with tears as she fin­ished the song. “I did the most awk­ward exit be­cause I thought,

‘Oh no, Kel­ley, you’ve cried in front of every­one, but it doesn’t mat­ter, you’ll never see th­ese peo­ple again. Just for­get about it.’”

But a week later, she landed the lead role. “I nearly fell off my chair,” she re­calls. “I thought maybe they were look­ing at me for one of the best friends and then they said, ‘You’ve got Char­ity!’”

The show was both phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally drain­ing. “At eight shows a week it was an Olympic marathon,” she says. “I had an oxy­gen tank side-stage for me just in case. I didn’t use it, but ev­ery show I couldn’t feel my legs be­cause the oxy­gen would leave them and they’d go to jelly.” Emo­tion­ally, it was also a dif­fi­cult time. “My dad was dy­ing of can­cer, so it was a bit of a dream and a nightmare. But won­der­ful, too, be­cause he got to see me do it. I was just a lit­tle girl from Inala in Bris­bane, so he got to see his dreams as well, you know?”

Burnt out and griev­ing for her fa­ther, Abbey wasn’t in­ter­ested in per­form­ing af­ter Sweet Char­ity wrapped. Also not one to sit on her hands, she took a job chore­ograph­ing Grease The Arena Spec­tac­u­lar. On open­ing night in Bris­bane, Dan­nii Minogue, who was play­ing the role of Rizzo, came down with food poi­son­ing and Abbey was the only per­son who knew the part. Once again, she found her­self in a plum role. Look­ing back at her ca­reer, she muses, “My life has been a course of glo­ri­ous ac­ci­dents.”

The up­com­ing pro­duc­tion of Elton John’s much-loved Billy El­liot The Mu­si­cal marks Abbey’s first foray on­stage in 20 years – but this time it’s no ac­ci­dent. De­spite be­ing scared to au­di­tion, she tells Stel­lar her fear also fu­elled her drive. “I re­alised I don’t know this 53-year-old as a per­former. I’d like to know who that is, or I’d just like to have a go and see if I could do it.”

And so, hav­ing landed the role of Billy’s dance teacher, Mrs Wilkin­son, it’s time to stare down those preshow jitters. “I al­ways say to my­self be­fore I go on­stage, ‘Some­one in the au­di­ence is see­ing their very first show ever, and some­one in the au­di­ence is see­ing the last show they will ever see, so give it 200 per cent.’ I will let Mrs Wilkin­son do the show, not Kel­ley – I’ll leave her in the dress­ing room.”

Billy El­liot The Mu­si­cal opens at Syd­ney’s Lyric Theatre on Oc­to­ber 10 and Mel­bourne’s Re­gent Theatre on Fe­bru­ary 20, 2020. For tick­ets, visit bil­lyel­liot­the­mu­si­cal.com.au.

“I thought, ‘Oh no, Kel­ley, you’ve cried in front of every­one’”

A SONG AND A DANCE (from top) Kel­ley Abbey with fel­low cast mem­bers from the up­com­ing Billy El­liot The Mu­si­cal; with Si­mon Baker in E Street in the early ’90s; in a dress re­hearsal (cen­tre) for stage show Sweet Char­ity with (from left) Kelly Ayk­ers and Mandy Carnie in 1997.

KEL­LEY WEARS Sass & Bide jacket, sas­sand­bide.com; Zara pants, zara.com/au; By Char­lotte neck­lace, by­char­lotte.com.au; her own ear­rings (all jew­ellery worn through­out); (op­po­site) Jonathan Simkhai dress, myer.com.au; Tony Bianco shoes, tony­bianco.com.au

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