“A varied, showstopping repertoire…

Every year, Tone Deaf Theatre Company offers a platform to a talented crop of first years to show off their skills onstage. Every year, these ‘fresh talents’ wow the audience with a varied, showstopping repertoire. This year, faced with the daunting prospect of a Durham stage debut, the new kids donned their black tie, upped the ante, and made everyone in the Assembly Rooms Theatre pay keen attention to their talents.

In quite a bold move, the Freshers’ Showcase began with the notoriously tricky ‘Company’ from Stephen Sondheim’s beloved musical of the same name. I’m delighted to say the performers made it seem like a walk in the park, the song’s complex crescendo of overlapping phrases delivered perfectly. Following one classic with another, Regan Hunter proved herself a comic force to be reckoned with in ‘I Can Hear The Bells’. The directorial choices from Jo Price and Issey Dodd really shone here with Regan’s hilarious movements (and props!) that had the audience in stitches.

The next solo was ‘Light in the Piazza’, a great song choice to showcase Fran Fitton’s lovely classical soprano voice. While Fran’s vocals were sadly lost a little in the trio number, ‘I Just Might’, they blended superbly with Molly Bell in their duet, ‘You Love Who You Love’. Molly’s gorgeous alto was on full display in ‘Mother Knows Best’ (as well as a frankly uncanny Donna Murphy impression), and the duet ‘People Like Us’ with Joe Butler-Smith, without a doubt the show’s standout performer. Oozing triple-threat charisma, Joe had the audience in the palm of his hand in ‘Buddy’s Blues’ or rather, I should say, under the heel of his tap shoe.

Another highlight was ‘The I Love You Song’, an exquisitely harmonised trio number spearheaded by a fantastic Misha Joshi, who also displayed an impressive belt in her brassy, cabaret-esque solo, ‘They Just Keep Moving The Line’. Likewise, both Midun Odunaiya and Dylan Jimenez delivered moving and formidably performed solos in ‘Run Away With Me’ and ‘If I Didn’t Believe In You’. With no props or dance moves to rely on, Midun and Dylan stood firmly centre stage and sang their hearts out to great audience reception. Forgiving some brief fumbling of the harmony, Dylan and Misha also delivered a solid rendition of ‘Bad Idea’ from ‘Waitress’, a deceptively difficult song that was nonetheless tackled valiantly. Last but not least, Charlie McKie boasted great stage presence in his group numbers as well as his solo, ‘What Is It About Her’, a song that allowed him to show off his strong, mature voice as well as some serious leading-man potential.

Underpinning it all was the backstage team – Tim Millard, Jacob Vellucci, Henry Flack and Amy Rettke-Grover – who should be commended for making sure the performances ran as smoothly as they did in the face of all the technical challenges this showcase stood to present. And of course, while the first-years sang, danced, and acted downstage, the unsung heroine of the showcase accompanied them beautifully from backstage left. Freya Hartley, facing perhaps the most difficult task of anyone involved, held the show together with confidence and poise despite the truly mammoth number of highly varied musical styles. The occasional lapse in memory or rhythm by a performer was covered swiftly and smoothly by Freya’s accompaniment, supporting each of the cast members and giving them the confidence to excel.

The trios and group numbers were a highlight, letting each member of the cast and creative team shine. Act 2 opened with a satisfyingly executed ‘Fugue for Tinhorns’ from ‘Guys and Dolls’. Considering this and ‘Company’, the showcase’s Musical Director (Charles Moscrop, assisted by Beth Fairbairn) deserves high praise for pulling off such complicated, polyphonic showstoppers – certainly no mean feat! While the creative team (wisely) kept dancing to a minimum, Francesca Horgan’s choreography was used very effectively in an all-male rendition of ‘You Could Drive A Person Crazy’, another Sondheim number that made clever use of kazoos (although would have benefitted from a little more campy chutzpah from the boys to really bring the dance moves to life). The lighting team, Rory Collins and Emily Phillips, must get their kudos as well, with simple, effective lighting choices interspersed judiciously with clever effects like a sudden red light in moments of ‘Be My Friend’, a wildly funny quartet number about unhinged Facebook-addicts.

Concluding with two contemporary crowd-pleasers, ‘You Happened’ from ‘The Prom’ and ‘Opening Up’ from ‘Waitress’, this year’s Freshers’ Showcase ended as it started: with a thoroughly entertained audience grinning from ear to ear and cheering for more. This year’s cohort of freshers made the showcase work wonderfully as one cohesive performance, not just with seam-bursting talent and the guidance of a fantastic creative team but with their generosity in inviting the audience to have as much fun as they were having. These charming newcomers more than proved themselves capable of tackling anything from classical to contemporary, and I (along with anyone else who was lucky enough to see them in action) cannot wait to see what they do next!

By Rory Maguire

Photo Credits: Tone Deaf Theatre Company