US gospel to raise stage's moral tone: Lesley Gerard listens in as amateur singers make their pitch for stardom

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The longest-running black gospel musical in America is to be staged in Britain.

Hundreds of hopefuls are being auditioned in London this week for starring roles in Mama I want to Sing, based on the life of Sixties jazz and pop singer Doris Troy. Negotiations are underway for a West End opening in January.

The musical marked a milestone in American theatre history because it was promoted as 'morally uplifting entertainment' featuring an all-black cast. With its rhythmical foot-stomping, hand-clapping score it ran for eight years at the Hecksher theatre in New York, before touring the US, Japan and Europe. Its creator, Vy Higginsen, believes its multi-million dollar success can be repeated in the UK.

In keeping with the show's tradition of launching unknown singers, the first two days of auditions were open to amateurs. The news was spread by advertisements in the black press and local radio, and word of mouth throughout London's gospel churches.

But the atmosphere was no less tense for the virtual absence of professionals. The singers crowded nervously in the cafe of the Pineapple Dance Studies, Covent Garden, as upstairs in Studio 10, Vy Higginsen, Japanese producer Masajazu Shibaoka, and their casting and creative directors, listened to endless versions of 'Amazing Grace' and 'Yes Jesus Loves Me', of varying standards.

In a corner seat of the cafe, too nervous to even drink coffee, a British Airways purser, Ian Johnson, 33, of Docklands, was praying for his big break.

He heard of the auditions only hours before when a friend saw an advertisement in The Voice and telephoned him. Although he has an Equity card and has appeared in pantomimes he still relies on the security of his day job.

'Why, oh why, can't I be happy with my life. Why am I putting myself through this torment - why can't I be satisfied with serving food and coffee on aeroplanes,' he wailed.

'It's normal to be nervous isn't it? I mean if they like you it could change your whole life. One minute you are an air steward, the next you are in a West End show.' The two women sitting next to him nod in wistful agreement. Everyone in the room has stars in their eyes.

In studio 10 another unknown, American singer-dancer Krysten Cummings, 20, who is living in Blackpool, mesmerised the panel. An energetic woman with a pony tail and broad smile, she jumped from one foot to the other with excitement and nerves, then belted out 'Amazing Grace' - hitting soaring high Cs.

'This girl just walked in off the street, we could not believe it. She is a front-runner for the lead role,' whispered Kery Davis, general manager of the consortium bringing the show to the UK.

She is one of 40 singers out of more than 200 lucky enough to be given a copy of the script and a tape to learn the songs for the callbacks which take place today.

Krysten has performed in New York and toured with a musical show in Europe, but has no formal training. She has enough savvy however, to realise that Vy is taking more than a cursory interest in her.

She is due to marry an English jazz musician in two weeks, but the excitement of her wedding is being eclipsed by a dream of West End success.

'My parents are due to come over from Philadelphia for my wedding, but it would be wonderful if I could tell them to hold off and come for opening night instead. . .'

Today her talents will be pitched against the cream of Britain's gospel singers, professionals with agents and recording contracts. The final choice for choir and the leads will be made tomorrow.

For Higginsen and her team it will have been a gruelling week. They arrived on Sunday from New York and began auditioning on Monday.

The producers, New York-based Broadway Pacific, may face opposition from the actors union, Equity if they try to place too many non-members in the musical.

Mr. Davis said: 'We will be arguing that there is not a sufficient pool of black gospel singers and actors to cast entirely from Equity members and that fresh talent deserves a chance.'

One role is filled - that of young Doris's mother. It will be played, as in New York, by Doris Troy. Persuading her was easy for Vy Higginsen - the two are sisters.

'It is based on the true life story of my sister' Ms Higginsen explained. 'I remember growing up as part of a very strong gospel church, our father was a minister. But Doris used to sneak off to see jazz legends like Billie Holiday perform at the local Apollo Theatre. Our mother was not happy, at the time it was the last thing you would want your little gospel child to be involved in.' But Doris was inspired, and went on to become a rhythm and blues singer with a hit in the Sixties, 'Just One Look', a song she composed which went on to become a hit for the Hollies in 1964.

'Doris is like so many famous American women whose success was founded on Gospel - the music shaped the people they became,' adds Ms Higginsen. 'There is no violence, no sex. It is a morally uplifting tale.'

But how will British audiences - renowned for their cynicism - receive a plot which one American critic described 'treacly as taffy.' Ms Higginsen makes no excuses: 'It is our story, it is a true story. I believe British audiences, black and white , will love it.'

(Photograph omitted)

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