Currently, Michael Ahomka-Lindsay is leading the cast of Disney’s NEWSIES at the Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre playing Jack Kelly alongside Bronté Barbé as Katherine Plumber, with the UK stage premiere choreographed by recent Olivier Award-winner Matt Cole and booking until the end of July. In last year’s production of Legally Blonde at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, Michael played Emmett, which led to him being nominated at the 2022 Black British Theatre Awards for Best Male Actor in a Musical. We caught up with Michael, who answered our questions about being in the UK stage premiere of Disney’s NEWSIES, playing Jack Kelly in the musical and his time as Emmett in Legally Blonde.
You are currently playing Jack Kelly in Disney’s NEWSIES at the Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre, what was it like finding out you’d booked the lead role and what is the character like to play?
My fab agent Ellie called me on my way into work at the Regent’s Park for Legally Blonde. It’s a pretty beautiful spot to find out some good news. I kind of wrecked the calm vibes there with my yelling though! Spent the rest of the day radiating good energy, it’s hard to hold that water until a cast announcement, it was a long wait! Jack Kelly is honestly the most rewarding and challenging role I’ve ever played. It’s challenging in almost every aspect of the musical theatre craft, but that is such an incredible opportunity to dig into. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a role that I can continue to cut my teeth with and enjoy so much along the way – there is so much to work with. Also, I’ve mentioned quite a few times how special it is to have the privilege of interacting with near on every single member of the company at different points in the show. It’s also such a joy to be bringing this beloved character to those that have been waiting to meet him live!
How much did you know about NEWSIES before auditioning and was there anything that drew you to the role of Jack?
I’d watched the film! But my exposure to the role in the musical was limited to hearing people perform songs from the show whilst in training. I hadn’t even heard the full soundtrack. When I was called in to audition I was surprised, as I knew it to be a role that only white actors had played. After I first started work on the speech/monologue in the middle of Seize the Day, I immediately connected to what he believed in, his impulses through the speech felt natural and shared. As in, I felt like I got him – where he was coming from I mean. And even after taping it, he was in my thoughts. One of my favourite actors, Chadwick Boseman, talks a bit about the moment he knows he is down to get into a character in similar terms – I like to follow that guidance. It makes sense to me.
How is it working with the rest of the cast and being in the brand-new production at Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre?
From the first week of rehearsals I was in awe. I knew I would be. This is an unbelievably talented AND skilled group of people. It feels once in a lifetime to be surrounded by a cast like this. Skilled in every aspect of what they do but still with room to be excellent in some unique way as well. I’m so glad our production aims to celebrate that. I’m also glad creatively we’ve set out to be different in what we create as compared to what has been done before. That’s always exciting for an artist. The Troubadour is like a Tardis. Deceptively massive compared to its exterior and purpose-built for some mad tricks – the tech capability is A1 – and our crew do seriously great work. Morgan Large and his team have created the most breathtaking and DETAILED set.
Can you tell us what it was like learning the choreography and preparing for opening night?
Look, I’m proud we could fit dancing for Jack in the show considering the demands of the other elements of this track and the people I’m dancing with in the room. But, the choreographic work that our Newsies do is out of this world. For me, through rehearsals, my biggest concern was providing the right motor through the prior scenes and within the choreography to lift us to the emotional place that the movement could sit in. Most of the characters in this show consistently sit at the end of their emotional tether and getting us all to that place that would warrant the need to express that expansively through dance was my focus. What does everyone need (myself included) to do this? I mean, that’s what Jack needs to do, that’s what a leader does in my mind.
Why would you recommend booking tickets to see NEWSIES and who do you think it will appeal to?
I think this show can be seen as a celebration of the musical theatre craft, musically, choreographically and with a story that is so fitting to our current political state – especially in the UK. It humanises those that take action against exploitative working conditions.
What are you looking forward to most for continuing in the Disney musical?
Working with this fab group of people, our giving audiences and learning more from this gift of a character.
Last year, you played Emmett in Legally Blonde at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, how was your time in the show?
I had such a brilliant time on that show. The creative team assembled a cast of such iconic people. So bold, creatively excellent and powerful in their diversity. I learnt so much about the power of having a unique and individual voice from the people on that show, including from Lucy and her team. I also made some lifelong friends. My work in playing Emmett was to help create an environment for Courtney Bowman’s (one of said lifelong friends) Elle to be challenged and grow. That and to realise a character that shows a different perspective of someone at odds with/trying to make it work within the Harvard environment. If you saw our show, you could imagine how full of fun this would’ve been. But there are real young black people from disadvantaged communities at Harvard and I wanted to do their stories some justice.
What was Emmett like to play and do you have any stand-out highlights from performing in the musical that you can tell us about?
He was a joy to play, including the moments before he entered the show and I got to run with Ellen Kane’s choreography. This is another character that had been played previously by only white actors, and so I had in some ways a blank canvas that I could draw in. It’s not without its challenges doing something like that, but it was hugely fun and rewarding to find this guy and the opportunities to show you who someone from a different walk of life would look in the position that Emmett finds himself in. The script takes on whole new meanings – in Chip on My Shoulder, Emmett talks about being from Roxbury. It doesn’t take long to find that Roxbury is known as the “heart of black culture” in Boston and that proportionally the black community make up 53% of its population. The process was full of revelations like that. And because for me, the show in general is so much about identity – forefronting this person’s relationship with his identity – down to what shoes he wears and when (thank you, Jean Chan), or why his hair is the way it is, was really special.
You were nominated for Best Male Actor in a Musical for your portrayal of Emmett at the 2022 Black British Theatre Awards, how did this feel?
Awards and creative work have this really strange relationship. Because inherently everything we do here is subjective. So, on the one hand, that gives you permission to make things that not everyone will like, it’s kind of a barrier that’s an important and healthy way of seeing things. On the other hand, our work is made to be watched – and you want people to feel something, have something shift in their lives. So, whilst the first thing is true, it’s also such a thrill to know you have had an impact on whoever has a stake in any given award! Black creatives are also typically under-celebrated at major awards ceremonies, so to be a part of a celebration and embracing of the work that black creatives have contributed, despite the difficulties we face, was beyond powerful. I felt I was in a room full of fierce artists. My final thoughts on it would be that it encouraged me to continue to make noise, as if to say – keep on going, you are seen and we personally appreciate what you’re saying.
Where does your love of acting come from and how did you start?
The most basic answer is that it’s incredibly fun. It’s a cliché, but it’s the same playfulness that I had when I sat with my friends and we all chose which Lord of the Rings character we were going to pretend to be at break time in primary school. It’s fun to be in a story, because I love stories. I used to read books whilst walking round with my mum at a mall, play video games with addictive plots, watch films and TV shows. I love sitting in my imagination and I’m just a big fan of a good story – and acting is the opportunity to be IN one. When I studied medicine, if anyone asked me what it is that drove me to do it, I would say: helping people. It’s the same with acting. I was at the Fringe doing a show called Brothers, written by Piers Cottee-Jones, in 2017 – the play was, in short, about male mental health and suicide. After most of the performances, we would have someone come up to us to describe how watching helped them understand/accept certain things about their loved ones, or they found it cathartic, or they themselves felt understood. For me, this kind of effect gives performance a level of purpose on top of the fun. In terms of how did I start, I can’t stress enough the importance of arts in schools enough. I owe my exposure to the actual act of performing completely to my educational institutions. At a school level and then at a university union society level too. My earliest memory of acting (aside from the nativity) was with my music teacher Mr. Sarpong. He was making this TV show for kids to learn about things through songs and stories performed by other kids. I’m pretty sure singing “Shortnin’ Bread” on that show will forever be my mum’s favourite performance of mine.
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