Before the announcement of theatres worldwide closing until further notice, Kimberly Blake had been performing as Violetta in the new West End run of Pretty Woman: The Musical, which opened at the Piccadilly Theatre in February. Kimberly had recently spent a year in the Andrew Lloyd Webber hit musical The Phantom of the Opera as Carlotta Giudicelli, after playing the role of Giulietta in Aspects of Love at Hope Mill Theatre. Making her professional debut in Sweeney Todd at the Adelphi Theatre, Kimberly has performed in many musicals since including Half a Sixpence at Chichester and in the West End transfer and in Chess at the London Coliseum. We spoke to Kimberly about starting her role in Pretty Woman, her time in The Phantom of the Opera as Carlotta and playing Jenny Lind in Barnum.
Before theatres closed, you were playing the role of Violetta in Pretty Woman: The Musical at the Piccadilly Theatre, what’s it like being part of the production?
Being part of Pretty Woman is incredible! It’s wonderful to finish a show on a high every night with the audience singing and dancing! When I run for my train I’m still buzzing from the audience!! Julia Roberts has always been my favourite actress because I love all of her films – especially Erin Brockovich and, of course, Pretty Woman! I was so obsessed with the film growing up – no lie! And when I got the audition through, I thought… I have to be in that show! I don’t care if I just stand at the back of the stage the whole time – I just want to be in it! It’s a real mix of old and new and uses every part of my skills as a performer being an Opera singer and also getting to belt some classic 80s pop style music. It’s written so well by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance.
I think I’m not alone in the obsession with the original movie as we had so many amazing people coming along to see the show and had already made some great fans along the way. People dress up and shout out the famous lines along with the lead actors Aimie (Atkinson) and Danny (Mac). We have had a few hen parties in! The show has been tweaked for a more modern feminist audience and Vivian (played incredibly by Aimie) is a feisty heroine fighting for what makes her truly happy.
For me, this job came at the perfect time as my time at Phantom was coming to an end and it has been amazing to do something so different score-wise after Phantom. Saying that, I do get to also do what I love in the role of Violetta and sing a gorgeous sequence from La Traviata. People may remember it as the famous scene in the movie where Vivian wears the amazing red dress and becomes moved by her first trip to the Opera. It’s a pleasure to sing and the cast are some of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with. We all love each other so much, do daily huddles on stage and we can’t WAIT to reopen soon! 😃
Can you tell us about playing Carlotta Giudicelli in The Phantom of the Opera?
Answering these questions makes me realise how many of my childhood dreams have actually come true! I always wanted to be in Phantom. I would listen to the score over and over again screeching along to Christine’s Cadenza. As a seventeen year old, I was a contestant in the BBC’s How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?. It was the first time I had ever been away from home and after seeing an article in the newspaper, my sister persuaded me to audition! I made it to the final twenty and spent an intense week of workshops at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s home, Sydmonton, after ‘Maria School’. I would never have dreamed back then about getting to actually sing the music Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote all those years ago, all these years later!
A little secret: I actually auditioned for the role of Christine around four times over the years. It never happened for me and as soon as I was given Carlotta material to sing in an audition, I realised why – I was a diva! It was a joy to use my voice to its full potential and get to sing that opening Cadenza every night. Carlotta was such a dream role for me and I loved playing her – so feisty and full of funny energy. The costumes are so beautiful, the original design still intact and so special. Phantom is just one of those timeless shows! I would love to play her again one day! We will see what the future holds! 😃
How did you feel when finding out you were joining the show at Her Majesty’s Theatre?
I have been with the same agent for eight years – Gina. She is amazing and has really seen me through the growth of my career over the years. I couldn’t do it without her! When she called me, I was actually in the middle of a rehearsal day for Aspects of Love. I snuck off to the toilet to take the call as I KNEW why my agent was calling me. Waiting for news after an audition is SO difficult! Every little phone beep makes your heart jump! When she said, ‘you got Carlotta’, I think I swore, screamed and asked her ‘really?’ 3000 times! That feeling is the best feeling and it never gets old! I was then sworn to secrecy and had to go back into rehearsals acting like nothing had happened! Our director gave me a little smile and I think most of the cast knew I had received good news because of the look on my face! Being in one show you love and getting news you have just landed another job is truly special.
What was Giulietta like to play in Aspects of Love?
Oh my! More amazing memories! Over the years, I have realised that it’s not necessarily about the role I play that makes the job amazing, it’s about the people I am performing with. Aspects of Love was certainly one of those experiences. Giulietta is a wonderful role to play and yet more stunning music and another beautiful (and very much underrated) score written by Andrew Lloyd Webber that I honestly wasn’t familiar with before the show. I adored being in Manchester, adored my castmates and adored the Hope Mill Theatre. A true passion project run by two amazing people that I hope will stay powerful after Covid-19. The entire cast was upstairs in one tiny dressing room and to say I had the most fun is an understatement! Yes, it’s lovely to have your own dressing room (!) but sharing with those wonderful people was the most fun I’ve had in such a long time and it will always be one of my most favourite jobs! Giulietta was my first of three Italian roles in a row (followed by Carlotta and now Violetta!). No part of my heritage is Italian whatsoever and is in fact German and Hungarian! I think I just have the Italian sass!
You were part of the cast of Chess at the London Coliseum in 2018, how was this?
OMG! I love all of these questions! Can I have more than one favourite job?! Haha! Chess! What an experience. A truly magnificent production, such a large scale at the gorgeous Coliseum, wonderful staff and crew and amazing castmates again! I only wish the contract was longer! Chess is, and will always be, one of my most favourite scores EVER. It has a global obsessive following and it’s easy to understand why! It’s where I heard my wonderful friend Tim Howar sing for the first time as Freddie and we both landed roles in Phantom after working together in Chess! We had our final auditions for Phantom on the same day and Tim went on to play The Phantom and I think his was perhaps one of the greatest portrayals I’ve seen. Chess was rock and roll with the ENO chorus with us every night and the amazing orchestra under the baton of John Rigby with the epic set and use of live in stage cameras. I got to play an American newsreader in the show too and live my purple eyeshadow and big hair dreams! Haha! I also worked with the amazing Michael Ball for the second time on this job – the first being my first professional job in 2012 (Sweeney Todd). It’s amazing to build friendships with colleagues you get to work with again and again!
What was it like understudying the roles of Svetlana and Florence?
Understudying two iconic roles was amazing and super challenging. I love getting to understudy because it really stretches your mind and memory muscles. Not only do you get to study icons like Cassidy Janson and Alexandra Burke, you end up knowing so much about the show because you have to learn so much of other people’s tracks on and off stage. What they sing and say on stage and also the backstage traffic – what costume and wig is next and which was to enter and exit. I have huge respect for understudies – without them, the show wouldn’t go on and being a cover is such a unique skill. It works well if you have an active mind as you usually learn the cover tracks with your own show track and then spend a lot of time waiting for a phone call!
Tim’s understudy (Cellen Chugg Jones) made the headlines on our Chess press night because he went on for the leading role of Freddie with so little rehearsal because Tim’s wife, Jodie, went into labour! You have to be ready at a moment’s notice! It’s challenging and exciting! I also loved learning both parts of Svetlana and Florence’s duet I Know Him So Well! Now THAT’S a challenge! 😃
You played Mrs Bindo-Botting in Half a Sixpence at both Chichester Festival Theatre and Noel Coward Theatre, what was she like to play and how was it transferring to the West End?
BINDO! Another great and fun role! I loved playing her so much! I loved working with Andrew Wright again and dancing his choreography as Bindo was SUCH a laugh! I actually spent most of the show wearing a fat suit because during rehearsals for the show, I mentioned to our director (the wonderful Rachel Kavanaugh) “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if I wore a fat suit?!”. That’s the last time I speak in a rehearsal because the next day she came in and said to me, “Kimberly – fat suit is a go!”. Haha! I have fond memories of being wrapped in padding by the late, great Paul Brown, our passionate production designer of the show. A very special man the theatre world misses dearly. It’s not every day you get to play a posh and silly character called Mrs Bindo-Botting! I also understudied Aunt Susan, Helen Walsingham, Mrs Walsingham and Lady Punnet. I got to go on for Aunt Susan and Mrs Walsingham – fun!
Chichester Festival Theatre is an incredible place to work – especially in summer. It feels like one long, gorgeous holiday and to follow it with a West End transfer was wonderful. None of us were ready to leave the show behind yet, so to take it to London was the best feeling.
What did you enjoy most about being part of the musical?
I loved working with an amazing creative team. I took part in a workshop for Cameron Mackintosh during the writing of the show with Emma Williams and felt like I really saw the whole process through from start to finish. From watching the amazing Stiles and Drewe writing and creating the lyrics on a piano to Cameron passionately describing his vision for Pick Out A Simple Tune whilst banging cutlery on the table! I was lucky enough to take part in the original Orchestral demos with the late William David Brohn. An award-winning Orchestrator famous for shows like Miss Saigon and Wicked. A true gentleman and absolute genius, it was amazing to watch him work and, in a studio of instruments, be able to pick out the tiniest of imperfections in a single instrument. Half A Sixpence was one of his last projects and I will always feel incredibly humbled to have been in his presence. The creative team was one like no other. I loved working with Andrew Wright again after Barnum and with Rachel Kavanaugh after The Sound of Music (Regent’s Park). Rachel is a wonderful director who really brought out the love and joy of the production and Andrew’s choreography was so perfect. I loved the costumes and parasol dancing. Without a doubt, my favourite number was Simple Tune, getting to release pure joy and the gradual build of the number was always the best way to start Act Two.
How was it touring with Barnum as Jenny Lind?
Jenny Lind was my first lead role and my first job for Cameron Mackintosh. I was so incredibly lucky to have been chosen to play that role after the wonderful Anna O’Byrne originated the role in the UK production at Chichester Festival Theatre. Touring the UK was wonderful and I saw so many places I would never have been or even think to visit. Brian Conley was the perfect P. T. Barnum and had the most amazing on-stage presence and charisma with Linzi Hateley (Charity).
I loved playing the role of a real historical figure like Jenny Lind and even went to visit the hospital named after her in Norwich. Dubbed the “Swedish Nightingale”, she was one of the best known and most popular entertainers in mid-19th century Europe. In 1847, she gave her first concerts in Norwich and subsequently returned in 1849, giving two concerts in St Andrew’s Hall on 22nd and 23rd January. The money raised from the Jenny Lind concerts were later earmarked for the purpose of an infirmary for sick children. A public meeting in 1853 unanimously endorsed the idea, and in 1854, the hospital opened in Pottergate, Norwich. It felt like a great privilege to be given the honour of singing as her every night. I also loved learning the Swedish script and song lyrics for the role and getting to be blonde!
What do you remember from making your professional and West End debut in Sweeney Todd at the Adelphi Theatre?
OH MY… My first professional job is, and always will be, the most incredible memory I have. I was a Swing and covered the role of Johanna (played by Lucy May Barker). Being a Swing on my first job was terrifying and exciting, I learnt so many tracks and can now probably admit I had no clue what I WAS DOING! I was a rabbit in the headlights, completely amazed by everything! I had the most incredible six months and couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be on stage with Theatre royalty like Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton.
I will tell you all a secret story I have that will stay with me forever… As actors, you sometimes have parts of your ‘getting ready process’ that help you get into character and perfume is one of them. Imelda used to wear a certain scent for the show that she called ‘Eau De Lovett’ after her character Mrs Lovett. It was in fact ‘Ellenisia’ from the lovely perfumery, Penhaligon’s. Our dressing room was on the fourth floor and Imelda’s by the stage. At beginners, I would leave my dressing room and run down the twisting staircase and be able to smell the perfume lingering in the corridor. After six months of constantly saying to her that I loved the fragrance, during the last week of the show (I cried all week), I knocked on her dressing room door to get her to sign my programme. She said some wonderful, encouraging and powerful things to me that day. Later that week, on the final Saturday between shows, I came up to my dressing room to find a green package on my dressing table. I opened the gift to reveal a bottle of perfume from Penhaligon’s… you can guess which scent. With it was a note saying, ‘A present from your first leading lady, love and luck, Imelda x’… Now THAT is a true leading lady.
Over Christmas, you played Fairy Godmother in Cinderella at Nottingham Theatre Royal, can you say more about this?
Nottingham is my home city paired with Derby and it was my second time getting to do Panto ‘at home’. I absolutely LOVE working for Qdos doing pantomimes and I always say I would just do it all year round because it’s SO much fun! The interaction with the audience is such an amazing feeling and the feel-good factor of being on stage and being surrounded by people cheering and having fun is amazing.
Through Panto, I have met and worked with some incredible people including Christopher Biggins, Hayley Tamaddon, Joe Pasquale, Simon Webbe, Les Dennis, Connor McIntyre, Richard Cadell and Sooty to name just a few. Panto is pure, unfiltered, silly joy, and not only do you get to sing the most fun songs and save the day, you get to wear light up costumes and crazy bright makeup!!
My favourite part about Panto is the relaxed performances. The theatre lights are brighter, sound is lower and performances are catered to people who wouldn’t normally be able to attend the theatre due to Spectrum Disorders like Autism and other Sensory difficulties. It allows EVERYONE to attend magical performances.
Had you always wanted to go into theatre and do you remember the first theatre show you saw?
Ever since I was a child I have wanted to perform. I still have my school records that were written by me at fourteen. I state boldly; ‘My dream is to perform on a West End stage and become an Actress and Singer’. The first show I ever saw was on a school trip to see The Lion King in London. I was in complete awe and it only made me more desperate to perform. I was part of the Egg Theatre Academy at Derby Playhouse where I was ‘Hen number one’ in my first professional debut. I had a job at a fruit and veg shop to pay for my singing lessons as we didn’t have much money at the time as my mum was a single parent. I am always actively encouraging people from impoverished or low-income backgrounds to pursue a career in theatre and I think that it’s crucial young people are given these opportunities via grants, funding and scholarships.
We understand you also work in voiceover, can you tell us about this part of your career?
I have always wanted to do voiceover work and recorded a professional demo a few years ago. I sent it off to many agencies and it was rejected many times but I never gave up. The market is pretty difficult to get into so I wasn’t deterred. I ended up changing my demo around a little before I sent it off again and then received a call from my current voiceover agent offering me a meeting. I had to go in and do a few mic tests and read a couple of script demos and then waited anxiously to hear back. A few days later, I was offered representation and have really enjoyed my work with them so far. I recently recorded a radio commercial for American Express’ Shop Small campaign as well as previous work for children’s entertainment shows. VO work is very difficult to break into and your own native accent is always what sets you apart from others. I sometimes record up to ten demo auditions a week as that’s all part of the job – I really enjoy it.
When did your interest in opera start and what training have you had?
I grew up listening to a mixture of Heavy Metal and Opera, thanks to family taste in music, and as a child, my singing lessons and exams I took for the ABRSM always focused on a more classical tone. This was during my teenage years before Instagram or any real online social media or TV talent competitions and as a result, my singing lessons were always classical-based. A lot of people told me I had a good voice, but as a teenager, I didn’t want to miss my break times at secondary school and used to sneak off to smoke behind the PE block with my friends! I didn’t have a particularly great education growing up and there weren’t many opportunities to pursue a career in performance which is why I joined the Theatre Academy in Derby. I had dance lessons at Harlequin’s School of Dance and later, at seventeen, entered the BBC talent competition. I moved to London at eighteen and was awarded a BBC Performing Arts Fund Bursary which enabled me to study at the Royal College of Music under Professor Eiddwen Harrhy. I joined YATI (previously Anna Scher Theatre) in North London – an amazing acting school that has produced many stars including Asa Butterfield, Daniel Kaluuya and Ella Purnell. They took me on with their agency and I had my first ever audition for a West End show. It was for Wicked! I wore a green dress and sang some Opera – no clue! I didn’t get the job (funnily enough!) but Pippa Ailion, the casting director, invited me back to audition for Sweeney Todd and I got the job! Pippa is an amazing woman and has always given young performers a head start in their career if she sees something in them. Before that, I had no formal training in Musical Theatre and had only taken part in unpaid fringe work and acting and singing classes, I didn’t do a degree and some colleges refused to take me when I applied, telling me I wasn’t good enough. Now, ten years later, I have played leading roles in the West End and enjoy an amazing career. Anything is possible if you have enough ambition – no matter what your background. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t make it!
How do you like to spend your time away from acting?
I believe passionately in therapy and talking openly about Mental Health within the industry and I am currently in the middle of a Counselling qualification – I would love to be able to help other creatives. Aside from this, I love art, painting, scrapbooking, colouring, reading, I make crystal pendants and have an Etsy shop called @by_skyabovetheroof, I am a qualified Reiki practitioner and an obsessed knitter! I love writing and am currently writing a novel and have written some children’s books too! Anything creative! I am a huge advocate for positivity on social media and always try to reflect this with my posts. I love reaching out and speaking to young people who want to make it in the industry. Aside from this, I love walking, running, podcasts and listening to music loudly!
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