ShenTens: My Favourite Rising Stars of West End musicals

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In four previous episodes of my weekly #ShenTens podcast, and their accompanying columns here, I’ve chosen my top ten favourite leading ladies and leading men respectively in both Broadway and West End musicals.

Now I turn to rising stars — the next generation of performers who are already making their mark in London. (I’ll get to Broadway when it returns to business itself).

But I can’t confine myself to just five men and five women to make this a #ShenTens, so instead its a #ShenTwens: ten of each to make a total of twenty. But obviously most of them have not yet had as extensive a career, so each entry is shorter!

LISTEN HERE:

RISING STARS — MOST PROMISING MEN

1 Charlie Stemp
London-born Charlie Stemp — who hails, like Del Boy, from Peckham — first made his mark in the West End when he played Arthur Kipps in a brand-new version of David Heneker’s 1960s musical Half a Sixpence, inheriting a role once played by Tommy Steele, first at Chichester and then transferring to the West End’s Noel Coward.

VIDEO: Performing “Pick Out a Simple Tune”

Since then, he’s been to Broadway — to star as Barnaby Tucker in the revival of Hello, Dolly!, first opposite Bernadette Peters in the title role then with Bette Midler when she returned to that role. And he’s been in two Palladium pantos on either side of that — Dick Whittington in 2017 and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 2018.

Until the pandemic struck, he was starring in the West End in the revival of Mary Poppins at the Prince Edward, literally climbing the proscenium arch and tap-dancing, upside down, as he ‘walked’ across the top of it.

And he’s only 27. A very bright future awaits him.

2 Jac Yarrow
Jac Yarrow was only 21 and still at ArtsEd when he was cast in the title role of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat for a revival at the London Palladium in the summer of 2019. As he said in one interview at the time, “I can’t quite believe it. Here I am, 21 years old, still at drama school and come June I’ll be standing centre stage at the prestigious London Palladium, singing the iconic music and lyrics of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. My dream came true.”

He was discovered for the role when he was playing the lead role of Jack Kelly in the UK premiere of Disney’s Newsies at ArtsEd, after which agent Jorg Betts pitched him to producer Michael Harrison. He was due to reprise the role at the Palladium last summer but those plans were shelved by the pandemic; it is now hoped that the show will return this summer.

I taught him in his first year at ArtsEd. He’s far from the only young person I met in their first years who’ve now gone onto leading roles in the West End — others include Tarin Callender, who featured in the original company of Hamilton and took over in Come from Away, and Dom Simpson, starring as Elder Price (both on Broadway as a cover, and now in the West End as the full-time lead).

3 Rob Houchen
Joining the London company of Les Miserables soon after graduating from Guildford School of Acting in 2013 to play Marius, Rob Houchen returned for its concert revival in 2019. In-between, he starred in Titanic, Eugenius and the London premiere of The Light in the Piazza (in a company that also included Renee Fleming and Dove Cameron). He was in the revival of City of Angels in 2019 when the West End was shut down while it was still in previews.

VIDEO: Performing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” from Les Miserables:

4 Sam Tutty
This 22-year-old Italia Conti graduate won last year’s Olivier Award for best actor in a musical for his first post-drama school job playing the title role in the West End transfer of the Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen. He was also named Most Promising Newcomer in the Critics Circle Theatre Awards. He has also previously been seen in British Theatre Academy’s 2019 summer season of Once on this Island at Southwark Playhouse.

VIDEO: Performing “Waving Through a Window” from Dear Evan Hansen at the 2020 Olivier Awards:

5 Jamael Westman
The original lead in the West End edition of Hamilton — inheriting the role originated on Broadway by its composer and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda — in 2017, Jamael Westman had only graduated from RADA the year before. A phenomenal achievement; he is bound to go places.

VIDEO: performing the opening number with the original West End company at the 2018 Royal Variety Performance:

6 Layton Williams
At 26, Layton Williams is already a considerable veteran of the West End; at the age of 12, he was already plying the title role in Billy Elliott and also did a stint as the young Michael Jackson in Thriller Live. After graduating from Italia Conti, he toured with Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man for New Adventures, played Duane and then Seaweed in Hairspray on tour and was featured in Kiss Me, Kate at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre in 2018, before taking over the title role of Jamie New in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie in the West End from the original John McCrea. He had just begun leading the national tour of the show when the pandemic struck.

In the 2019 West End trailer for the show:

7 Mark Antolin
I last saw the wonderful Mark Antolin as Lancelot in an outdoor production of Camelot at Newbury’s Watermill Theatre last summer. And it is outdoors where many of his musical performances have been seen, too: he did ensemble roles in Into the Woods and Hello, Dolly! at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park soon after graduating. But it was in Emma Rice’s gorgeous indoor production of Romantics Anonymous at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe in 2017 that I really first noticed him; immediately before the pandemic struck, he worked again with Rice on her Kneehigh/Wise Children tour of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk.

Video feature of a 2019 revival in rehearsal, from WhatsOnStage:

8 Joel Harper-Jackson
In 2018, Joel Harper-Jackson was in the premiere of Gus Gowland’s wonderful musical Piece son String at Colchester’s Mercury Theatre, which only ran for a fortnight (which I went to see twice as I loved it so much).

Here he is featured in “Standing in the Shadows” (the main singer heard is Gary Wood). A full filmed version of the original production can be rented via Digital Theatre.

He went on to star as Charlie Price in the tour of Kinky Boots, setting him on the leading man path. In the West End, he has understudied in Beautiful — the Carole King musical.

9 Ivano Turco
After graduating from Urdang Academy in 2020, Ivano Turco auditioned for the ensemble of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella — and found himself cast as the male romantic lead, Prince Sebastian. When he got the call telling him that he’d secured the role, he couldn’t quite believe it, as he told the Evening Standard: “It was surreal. I had to keep looking at my phone to make sure the call had happened and I didn’t dream it. It still feels weird now saying: ‘My role’. I can’t believe it. It really is the stuff of fairy tales. It is a magical story.”

VIDEO: Performing “Only You, Lonely You” from Cinderella

10 Oli Higginson
Fresh out of Guildford School of Acting, Oli Higginson secured the lead role of Jamie in Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years at Southwark Playhouse, which opened just ahead of the theatre shutdown in March 2020 — and came back after the first lockdown when the theatre re-opened, briefly, last October, only to be shutdown mid-run again.

VIDEO: Performing “Moving too Fast” from The Last Five Years.

RISING STARS – MOST PROMISING WOMEN

1 T’Shan Williams
T’Shan — her name rhymes with Gran, according to her Twitter biography — recently gave a blazing, star-making performance as Celie in the online concert version of The Color Purple that she first did on the stage of Leicester’s Curve in 2019. But she was actually a replacement for the originally cast Seyi Omoomba, who had been stood down from the production after refusing to disavow some historical Facebook posts in her name that were strongly critical of gay people — an untenable position to hold since the character she would have been playing has a lesbian relationship in the course of the show.

T’Shan has also appeared in the West End in The Book of Mormon in 2016, and first came to my attention in the London professional premiere of Cy Coleman’s The Life in 2017. She’s also been featured in Caroline, or Change in 2018, and Heathers in 2018.

VIDEO: Singing “I’m Here” from The Color Purple:

2 Stephanie McKeon
The Dublin-raised Steph McKeon made her West End debut in the original cast of The Commitments, based on the Roddy Doyle film of the same name, before playing Cynthia in Beautiful — the Carole King Musical; but it was as part of the company of Close to You — Burt Bacharach Reimagined, first at the Menier then at the Criterion, that she first came to my attention. (In 2017 she married that show’s star and conceiver Kyle Riabko). Next up, she will star as Anna in the British premiere of Disney’s Frozen at Drury Lane, now rescheduled for later this year.

AUDIO: Singing “She used to be Mine” from Waitress

3 Aimee Atkinson
The original Katherine Howard in Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s cult musical Six, Aimee Atkinson is the first of that production’s alumni to land a lead role in another West End musical when she led the cast of Pretty Woman on its arrival from Broadway to the Piccadilly, just ahead of the pandemic last March. She will now return to the show when it resumes performances, now at the Savoy, later this year.

AUDIO: Performing “All You Wanna Do” from the original cast recording of Six.

4 Lucie Jones
As a contestant in The X-Factor in 2009, Lucie Jones finished 8th; she was subsequently the performer of the 2017 British entry for the Eurovision Song Contest, finishing 15th with “Never Give Up On You.” She first played Cosette in Les Miserables in 2010, and is set to return to the show this year as Fantine.

In 2018, she starred in a short concert run of Howard Goodall’s 1986 musical Girlfriends at the Bishopsgate Institute, produced by London Musical Theatre Orchestra and recorded as a CD.

VIDEO: Performing “Seize the Moment” from Girlfiends, with Lauren Samuels:

In 2019, she took over from Katherine McPhee in the West End cast of Waitress.

VIDEO: Performing “She used to be Mine” from Waitress:

5 Amara Okereke
Another former student of mine at ArtsEd, Amara Okereke (pronounced Oh-Kay-Rah-Kay) went straight into Les Miserables as the first person of colour play the role of Cosette in 2018, for which she won the The Stage Debut Award for Best Actress in a Musical, as well as the Recent Graduate Award at the inaugural Black British Theatre Awards 2019.

VIDEO: performing “Make Someone Happy” at The Stage Debut Awards, a year after she won one herself.

6 Molly Lynch
Molly Lynch blazed into my world when she starred as Cathy in Southwark Playhouse’s revival of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years last year that also earned her co-star Oli Higginson a place on this list.

VIDEO: Performing “I’m Still Hurting” from The Last Five Years:

Before this, she’d also appeared at Southwark Playhouse as Anne Brontë in Wasted, and was understudy to Dove Cameron in The Light in the Piazza at the Royal Festival Hall in the summer of 2018, going on a number of times for her; but not, alas, on any of the four occasions I saw it! This was one understudy I’d have been seriously happy to have seen! But I reckon her understudying days are now behind her.

7 Evelyn (Evie) Hoskins
Evelyn Hoskins — universally known in the business as Evie — was in the original London cast of the Broadway import Spring Awakening in 2009, but she first emerged as a star in her own right when she played the title role of a girl with telekinetic powers, in the notorious musical Carrie when it came back to Southwark Playhouse in 2015. In 2020, she took over as a supporting character in Waitress, until the pandemic forced an early closure to it.

VIDEO: Performing “Lost in the Wilderness” from Stephen Schwartz’s Children of Eden at West End Switched Off in 2016.

8 Lauren Drew
Progressing through UK touring roles in Ghost to the ensemble of the West End’s Kinky Boots and Heathers plus the Donmar revival of Sweet Charity and the Open Air Theatre’s revival of Evita (both 2019), Lauren Drew has finally hit the big time by being cast as Catherine of Aragon in the 2019-20 UK Tour of Six the Musical s six months before the pandemic struck. But she wasn’t idle during the shutdown, appearing in TV’s The Voice, from which she was eliminated the semi-finals.

VIDEO: Performing “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” in the semi-finals of The Voice.

9 Sophie Isaacs
A West End regular in shows that have included Six, Heathers, Kinky Boots and Made in Dagenham (she appears in the original cast albums of the latter three), Sophie Isaacs was also the Palladium panto Goldlilocks and the Three Bears. She’s destined to originate a leading role one day soon, as this video mash-up of songs from Frozen shows.

VIDEO: Performing “For the First Time in Forever” from the film of Frozen plus “Monster” from the stage version of Frozen, in cabaret at London’s Crazy Coqs.

10 Lizzie Bea
Leanne Jones won the 2008 Olivier for Best Actress in a Musical when she played Tracy Turnblad in the original West End transfer of Hairspray; now her shoes are soon to be filled by Lizzie Bea when that show comes back to the London Coliseum later this year. After starting out as a member of both the National Youth Theatre and National Youth Music Theatre she has appeared in the West End in Kinky Boots, and has done regular cabarets and workshops.

VIDEO: Performing “Good Morning Baltimore” at the launch of Hairpray.

NEXT WEEK
Having signalled who the stars of the future may be, I will next week remember some of my favourite Broadway legends of the past.

AND FINALLY:
Special thanks to my producer Paul Branch; Howard Goodall, for theme music; and Thomas Mann for the logo design

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