Making a song and dance ...
As the curtain goes up tonight on their latest musical, Hot Mikado, the members of St Agnes’ Choral Society tell Jamie McDowell of the pressures they face
There was a chipper atmosphere in the air last Tuesday as St Agnes's Choral Society met at the Belvoir Players Theatre to put the finishing touches on their take of the Gilbert and Sullivan musical comedy, Hot Mikado, which premiers in the Grand Opera House tonight and runs until April 17.
An eager few had gathered at the gates half an hour before rehearsals were scheduled to begin, only to find that they had no key to get in.
Undeterred, the sound of singing filled the spring air as a few members of the choir sparked an impromptu practice session while they waited for the key holder to arrive.
As well as a diverse range of newcomers, including actors, singers, musicians and backstage staff, some members of the society have had their fair share of accolades.
The most notable was Phillippa O'Hara, who recently competed in the TV show ‘Over the Rainbow', which made a competition of Andrew Lloyd Webber's search for Dorothy and Toto for his production of The Wizard of Oz.
And as the show gets under way tonight, another former member of the society, Patrick Smyth, will be starring on the opening night of Hair in London’s West End.
He’ll be the first ever UK company member to perform with the Broadway cast of Hair.
Ironically, his family will miss his professional début tonight to perform with St Agnes' in the Grand Opera House.
But when the actors, actresses, singers and musicians are not strutting the stage in Hot Mikado at night, what do the people of St Agnes' Choral Society do during the day?
Lead actor Paul Masterson (26) was notably upbeat.
“I'm a peripatetic music teacher, meaning I teach in various schools and locations, so my job relates to the Choral Society in that it involves music,” he explains.
“I play various instruments, like the saxophone, clarinet and the piano — as well as singing.
“My character is called Nanki Poo. He's one of the lead characters and is the strong, hero-type who gets the girl in the end.”
Although Hot Mikado is a famous comic hit in its own right, the Society have decided they don't want to perform a simple cut-and-paste of the original songbook.
They've developed their own take on the play, complete with a few musical twists.
Paul explained: “We didn't want to just sing the same songs in the traditional style of the production.
“We've modernised it a bit and mixed in elements of jazz, blues and r&b to make it more interesting.”
After the double doors to the studio were flung open, it didn't take long until the main hall was thronging with life.
The younger kids were buzzing around the room in excitement as the older ones could be heard warming up their vocal chords with some pitching exercises.
Over the chatter, the sound of a piano could be heard as people got into place.
Michelle Hannaway (25) from Belfast says of her role in the production: “It's my seventh lead role in a St Agnes' show.
“It's kind of nostalgic because Hot Mikado was the first show that the group put on when it was first formed in the 50s.
“I come from the Isle of Man originally then came here to live when I was younger.
“I started going to St Agnes' youth club and just got involved with the Choral Society from there. I've always been a keen singer. I won BBC choirgirl of the year in 1999.
“Like Paul, my work during the day ties in with what we do here in the evenings. I work for the CCEA as a specifications support officer.
“My work involves dealing with the arts which includes elements of music and drama,” she says.
“My character is called Yum Yum. She's a sort of butter-wouldn't-melt character. We've jazzed up the entire production this year and it has so much more energy now. We think it will appeal to a wide range of people but also a younger audience.”
Gareth McGreevy's (21) plays the unfortunately named Pish-Tush. During the day however, Gareth is Vice President of the Queen's Student Union.
“I'm vice president this year but I'll be president next year,” he said. “I'm in charge of a whole range of publications and campaigns. It's a very diverse role that keeps me very busy.
“I joined St Agnes's as I've always been interested in musical theatre and I heard that St Agnes' was the best company for that,” he adds.
“The social aspect of the society is one of the biggest draws for me.
“The comedy within the show is fantastic so we're all usually very upbeat and it's great to work with people like Kelly Brown who won best supporting actress in 2007 at the Association of Irish Musical Societies and Fiona Keegan who won Best Female Voice award in 2008 for her role as Calamity Jane.”
Gareth adds: “I think what people can expect from Hot Mikado is great comedy and a great family night out at the theatre.”
Fiona Keegan plays the coveted role of Pitti Sing in the musical, taking the place of Phillippa O'Hara who left to take part in Over the Rainbow.
“It was kind of a last minute thing, but it’s exciting at the same time,” she said.
“During the day, I go about my job as vice principal of St Kevin's Primary School on the Falls Road. At school, I always help out in drama and music,” Fiona said.
“When the show nears completion, family life practically stops. We'll rehearse for about four nights a week.
“But there's there's nothing like the applause at the end of a show. As Gareth says, the social element is one of the best parts,” laughs Fiona. “Especially the after-show party.”
Kelly Brown (31), from Bangor, teaches performing arts in Groomsport.
“I teach from pre-school right up to 16 and 17 year-olds. At the moment it's a hobby that earns really. I'm hoping to expand a lot more next year,” she says.
“I play the character of Katisha, who's betrothed to the leading man and comes back to claim him after he becomes involved with someone else. It's a great panto-style comedy.
“We'll have around 50 people on stage for many of the songs, as well as my daughter, Sophie, who’s seven.
“It's a bit hectic at the moment but it makes life a lot easier for me when my daughter is here as well,” she said.
At the opposite end of the room, sisters Jolene and Phillippa O'Hara chat as other members of the choir begin to move into position on stage for the first recital of the evening.
Jolene O'Hara (21) is the younger sister of Phillippa, who's come along tonight to show her support for her friends.
“During the day I work on the Living Tour of Belfast. I haven't been doing it for too long but it's really interesting. We do walking tours and things like that,” said Jolene.
“I joined St Agnes' about five years ago when I saw dancing auditions advertised in the paper and I developed my singing from there.
“Choral singing is unique in that you need to listen to the others at all times to make sure you're blending properly. Some of the notes are hard to reach.”
She adds: “I play the character of Peep Bow in the play. She's the younger sister of three maids. She's a wee bit sassy and a little bit blonde at times and she'd shy
back from confrontation now and again.
“The script is very sharp and that adds to the pace and humour of the production. When we're rehearsing we laugh day in and day out.
“When I was doing my degree in engineering it was hard to fit everything in at times, but if you love something then you make time for it.”
Phillippa says: “I'm just here today to show my support to everyone and say thank you for everything. I'm not going to be in the play now but I'll maybe get a job helping out backstage.
“Taking part in Over the Rainbow was an amazing experience. Working with Andrew Lloyd Webber was great for me as well.
“Even though I'm out of the show, he wants me to stay in contact with him. I have to ring him this week to see what he wants me to do. I was surprised when he gave me his personal mobile number so I can speak to him when I want.”
It's not just those who appear on stage who make the show a success. Working tirelessly behind the scenes, musical director Ciara Bowman and director/choreographer Declan Moore are hard at work.
“By day, I'm the head of maths at St Malachy's College in Belfast,” says Ciara.
“I have three young children and a very supportive husband. It's very hard to balance work with the society.
“Sometimes I can crash a bit at the end. You don’t really realise the impact that it takes on you. From this week onwards we'll be very busy, but the show must go on.”
Declan, who works in customer services during the day, says: “This is the main production of the year. We've brought elements of soul and gospel to the show as well as jazz and blues.
“There's a huge amount of comedy in the play. It's definitely not stuffy. There's a lot of pride involved in the work we do here.”
Hot Mikado starts tonight in the Grand Opera House, Belfast and runs until Saturday.