One of the greatest parts of this experience for me has been the chance to rekindle with old cast-mates and young performers who have now blossomed into mature & seasoned performers. This weeks blog shines the spotlight on two integral members of the Grease team who are well known to Redcliffe Musical Theatre audiences and who I have worked with on in shows since 2011. Four years on and we are working together closely developing their roles and preparing them to deliver show-stopping performances as Kenickie & Rizzo respectively, I speak of course of Alex Kuchmenko and Shonagh Hale.
Audiences will recognise Alex from his recent stint as Bobby C (U/S) in 'Saturday Night Fever' or perhaps some may recognise him from his days in drag as the ugly step-mother in Cinderella the Pantomime. Alex now steps into the role of Kenickie and really breaths new life into the character, it is a wonderful thing to see a young man whom I've watched for numerous years mature both as an artist and as a person. Now to work with him on Grease after playing his role myself is a real treat for me as a director, I have absolute belief that Alex will surpass my turn as Kenickie and really take his part to places yet untouched and I am thrilled to continue to watch his growth in this show and whatever he decides to do going forward.
Shonagh Hale is also no stranger RMT audiences, she has had successful turns in Joseph, Grease & Saturday Night Fever. I have known Shonagh personally for close to ten years now and have had the pleasure of working with her on stage since late 2010. At only 14, Shonagh was originally cast as an U/S for The Narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat but soon enough found herself stepping up into the full-time cast and delivering a performance way beyond her age. What makes working with Shonagh in this production such a pleasure is the fact that we have actually worked together on this show before, Shonagh understudied Rizzo back in 2012 and delivered two knockout performances in the role to great reviews. Getting to share the stage with her back then has really cemented the trust between us and as you'll see from her performance in this adaptation, Shonagh has developed immensely in the past 2 years.
This past weekend I sat with Alex and Shonagh to talk about the show and what it takes to bring this dysfunctional couple to life.
So Alex, you play Kenickie tell us a bit about him..
Alex: Kenickie is second in command to Danny in the T-Birds, although at times he tries to take full leadership of the group, especially when Danny isn’t present. He is a natural leader, and almost unconsciously bosses the group around at times. Kenickie avoids any moments at which there is a possibility that he could expose his soft side; he has built an alpha male image around himself, which he is proud to expose to the world. He isn’t a hero; in fact he is far from it. Instead, he houses traits such as being obnoxious, rude, loud, and rough. Despite displaying these traits, he is the one keeping Danny’s head on straight. The only thing that could break Kenickie’s suave is fear, which is seldom an issue for him. But when it does, there’s no Mr. Tough Guy anymore, which is when the audience gets a glimpse of who Kenickie is inside.
Shonagh, you understudied Rizzo in the 2012 production, what have you been up to since then?
Shonagh: The last few years have been both hectic and a breather - I had a three year break from musical theatre. That being said I was given the awesome opportunity to be a featured vocalist in the 2013 production of Creative Generation. Other than that, I've just focused on working and graduating and making the best of myself in other areas.
So 2 years on and the role now belongs to you, how are you finding it back in the pink jacket, what's easier or harder this time?
Shonagh: I am absolutely, crazily adoring being in the pink jacket again and more so to be playing Rizzo. She is fiery, brutal and so gorgeously complex. I would say playing her has become easier as I feel she's a rougher, angrier extension of my own self. I think I've grown a lot as a person the last few years so I find her much easier to understand and I'm not so shy or naive anymore. I would say the most difficult aspect of playing her is that I've put a lot of expectations on myself to delve into her complexities and play her justice. Riz is not sunshine and rainbows - she's crass, rude and has very few redeeming qualities yet still manages to retain a certain charm and you hate to love her. THAT is what I want the audience to feel.
You are the youngest of the four leads, what have you found challenging about this?
Alex: Being the youngest of the leads, I’ve found it’s difficult thinking in the way they do; they’ve lived other aspects of life which I’m soon to endeavour into – this doesn’t stop me from becoming Kenickie, the rough, tough, Alpha Male he is, in fact it has been beneficial to work around an older lead cast – they have given me insight as to what it is like being an 18 year old, the hardship of finance, being on the brink of adolescence... I’ve been around older friends for a year now, all who have taught me various things, some more than others, and the little things I’ve learnt are now being put into practice in this role.
How are you finding this new cast to work with?
Shonagh: This cast is one in a million. I am absolutely in love with each and every one of the individuals in this show. I really don't want to use the word kids - these are amazing, mature young individuals and I feel blessed to be a part of such an encouraging and energetic group of people. I walk in to and leave each and every rehearsal with a smile on my face and a warmth in my heart because of these incredible youths.
What is your favourite part of the show to perform?
Alex: When Kenickie reveals that yes, in fact, he does have a soft side. Finding the balance of still being Number One and showing the vulnerability behind him is a great challenge, and it gives a very unique colour to the character… for me it’s the cherry on top; All the other T-Birds have already shown their soft sides, and finally Kenickie breaks, really adding a sense of sincerity and honesty to him.
What are you liking about this production?
Alex: It's working with a young team of thespians; the young, witty and creative minds have brought this production to a prestigious level of performance. No aspect has been missed, Acting, singing and dancing are being fine tuned, polished and refined to perfection. Aside from the rehearsal aspect, the production team and cast have bonded so closely, which makes us so much more comfortable in the space. No one feels awkward performing; everyone supports each other, and that is a key element which I feel many productions often lack.
One more question for you both, what do you like about your Kenickie/Rizzo?
Shonagh: I think my kenickie is sensational. I believe Alex is on the way to becoming a fantastic seasoned performer for someone so young and he's developing a vast repertoire. His dedication to Kenickie and portraying him in the most honest way is wondrous and as I've known him for several years now, it has been incredible to watch him grow and I am very proud to see how he has developed into such a passionate, talented performer. Alex can go wherever he wants with his stagecraft - it is going to be amazing to see what more he has to offer to the stage not just as kenickie but in whatever roles he takes on in the future.
Alex: At times I forget Shonagh is Shonagh. Her dedication to Rizzo is just unbelievable, or should I say fully believable. When the blocking begins, she instantly transforms into rizzo, the way she walks, talks and interacts with the others. She goes from her kind, caring self to a sassy, risky, bend-the-rules chick from the 50’s. Her talent is incredible, she never shy’s down from any challenge, whatever is thrown at her, she takes it and makes it her own. She brings a unique energy to the stage, which energises everyone to give an even stronger performance. I’ve seen various performances of Grease where each Rizzo gives a great performance, although they have lacked something. That something is honesty. Shonagh brings such honesty and sincerity, which hits the audience right in the feels. Rizzo, I’m blown away every time I see you perform. See you on stage, Kid.
You can catch Alex & Shonagh along with Adam Goodall as Danny, Genevieve Tree as Sandy and the rest of the gang from Rydell High this June 12th & 13th only. Tickets on sale NOW, for more information click below.