‘Gene Kelly meets Tarzan’: Interview with Crazy for You’s Tom Chambers
Rose Crees interviews Tom Chambers, Strictly Come Dancing winner and star of BBC’s Casualty, about his latest role as Bobby Child in the ongoing UK tour of Crazy for You which arrives as Leeds Grand on 29th August.
‘Hi, is that Tom?’
‘It is, it is, it is, yes! That’s perfect timing, just let me make sure I get myself in a place where you can hear me properly.’
‘Just hold on. I’ve just been to the canteen.’
‘Plymouth Theatre canteen, I just got myself some uh, they’ve just run out of the pulled pork.’
‘Gutted, gutted. So, I’ve ended up with a vegetable lasagne.’
When Tom Chambers answered the phone on Wednesday evening I did not expect our conversation to be founded in Plymouth Theatre Royal’s lack of pulled pork. It transpired that perhaps this was a blessing in disguise, as Tom explained to me in great depth, he ‘never realised how much nutrition really has to play a part into it. You watch these shows and think “ah yeah it would be great to do that” and you actually get to do it you realise how much discipline goes into it due to the fact your adrenal gland is switched on for such a long time’. From not consuming coffee too early in the day, to choosing slow-release energy over ‘burgers and ice cream’, Tom likened his regimented diet to Andy Murray’s boycott of pizza (who he momentarily confused with Bill Murray), ‘you can’t get away with that when you’re a world champion tennis player’.
As our conversation ensued, it became clear that this is a show of full immersion. Every element of Tom’s, and the whole company’s, body and talent is required to pull this off: ‘it’s one of the most active shows [he’s] pretty much every been involved in so it’s quite full on’. While Tom joked that the Watermill Theatre’s touring production of Crazy for You is ‘like Gene Kelly meets Tarzan’, his description of the performance where ‘characters are kind of leaping around a spiral staircase, and like a balcony with no balustrade, […] we jump down onto a piano and then from the piano onto boxes and there’s ropes and things’ portrayed this musical as one of sheer physical, bodily and emotional outburst.
Crazy for You is musical of comedy, romance and ‘pure joy’ written and first performed in 1992 with the music of George and Ira Gershwin, revived this year and touring the UK. Tom Chambers plays Bobby Child, son and heir to a rich banking family come Broadway dreamer, who is trapped in a loveless engagement to Irene (Caroline Flack) and is sent from New York City to Deadrock, Nevada on his mother’s orders to foreclose on the theatre in this dried-up mining town. There he meets Polly Baker (Charlotte Wakefield) and through ups and downs, rivalries, disguises and show-stopping performance, they endeavour to save the theatre and their love triumphs.
This role is a very personal experience for Tom, he shared with me that ‘this show is all about heart, […] and Crazy for You, it’s not even funny, it’s one of my favourite musicals of all time. So, when I was about fifteen and I saw it, I thought “please if there’s one role I get to do in my entire life, please let it be Bobby in Crazy for You”. […] This the role of a lifetime for me.’ From the warmth of the performance itself to the passion of those performing it, it appears to me that is a musical designed to envelope and immerse all those who watch in complete elation.
“Gene Kelly meets Tarzan”
Part of that immersive experience comes from the orchestra’s presence on the stage as all-singing, all-dancing members of the cast: ‘it makes them very, very integral to every moment, every kind of flavour of description and story-telling that happens on stage because they’re so present and, […] it means that it’s a real ensemble, active, total team-work […] piece all the time’. Every element of performance is visible to someone watching, dance steps are formed alongside the powerful sound itself and Tom expressed ‘from an audience point of view, I love watching live music anyway, I mean watching someone play an instrument so skilfully it’s so attractive and appealing and fascinating and interesting just watching, someone [with] their fingers on the saxophone, going up and down, up and down at such great speed, or on the trumpet, […] bouncing around notes all-over the place.’ While it seems obvious that musicals differ from regular plays with music being a necessity, its visual presence in Crazy for You ‘makes it that quadruple threat as opposed to a triple threat, the fact that you can sing, dance, act and play an instrument’. According to Tom, ‘you can always be watching someone, working out how they play that instrument and dancing and kicking and pirouetting and jete-ing at the same time […], it’s absolutely different’. This encapsulating, sensual performance seems as if it suspends reality, replacing it with what Tom describes as ‘reinventing the musical wheel’, something experienced rather than seen.
While Crazy for You is set in the 1930s, I pressed Tom to see if he felt the divide between poorer, destitute desert-dwellers whose cultural centre is under threat from the mega-rich, financially powerful New Yorkers resonated with more contemporary social issues. ‘It’s not Chekov!’ he jested, ‘this show really is about love crossing boundaries, that it’s not going as far as Romeo and Juliet, it’s about there being a divide. Obviously, the mother is oppressive and wants to vet who Bobby can or cannot marry yet he falls in love with the girl from a sleepy little town in the desert in Nevada and he doesn’t care about, and lots of people don’t care about, any of those social levels or materialistic things.’ Tom’s desire that the show ‘hopefully teaches people it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you do in life, if there’s chemistry there and love there […] love has no boundaries – maybe that is the answer, love has no boundaries’ caused me to rethink my seemingly pessimistic outlook on things. Perhaps we all need to start looking for Gershwin in a time when all we see is Chekov.
Both the musical’s and Tom’s vision seems to be wholly optimistic, it’s a performance that aims to send the audience home feeling better than they went in that perhaps does link to real-world affairs. ‘Anywhere today, in any part of the world that the city that attracts people for work, for business’, he explained, ‘they’re going to the city because they think they can probably earn more money in the city [but] in this particular instance it’s New York going out to the desert, […] things change and often move into other operations so the joke about the desert is that ‘who would come to the desert to gamble?’ and then, of course, Las Vegas is built’. There seems to be joy and opportunity in even the most barren of places. While there may be some real-world, social analysis buried in Crazy for You, it seems to be a show predominantly about loving, singing, dancing and being joyous simply for the sake of it.
It is clear that Crazy for You is going to provide audiences with a sensational display of physical, emotional and performative immersion but it seems that this extends to the tour itself. I questioned Tom on why he thought it was important that big productions tour. Aside from the obvious and dramatic price difference in tickets and associated costs with travelling to the West End, he suggested that ‘it’s so important for the country that we get to come and support the counties and, at the same time, we get to see all the different various cultures within the counties, their traditions and their colloquialisms. […] So, it’s fascinating for the company and also great for the audience because […], hopefully, as we would have it, that it’s West End quality coming to a town near you.’ The love and joy of the production spread as the production tours, to those who see it and the places where it is performed. Tom expressed that his ‘role is, in this particular production, we all work as a team, so there’s company morale for one and then also when we go to the counties […] that we get involved in the local press and things, for the local theatres and things that we are advocating good entertainment all round’.
“maybe that is the answer, love has no boundaries”
As our interview ended and I wished Tom luck with the rest of the run and his time in Leeds, he recalled another amazing thing about touring: getting to see family and friends in the places the show visits. ‘My Auntie Shirley’s up in Leeds’, he explained, ‘so I can’t wait to see her. That’s the other nice thing about this is when you have relatives in different parts of the country, it’s a great excuse to get together.’ This warm and amusing finish to our conversation seemed to sum up the demeanour of Tom and Crazy for You perfectly – this is a show about loving hard, seeking the most intense joy and optimism in life, wherever you may be, and letting that shroud all you do.
Crazy for You continues its run next week at Leeds Grand Theatre with performances from 29th August to 2nd September, with matinees on Wednesday 30th, Thursday 31st and Saturday 2nd. I only hope there’s enough pulled pork in the canteen at their next stop.
(Image courtesy of Crazy for You UK Tour)