“A brave act in itself.” That’s how television veteran Daryl Somers described the birth of Birdie Productions, a new Bankstown-based independent theatre company launched by Executive Producer Rodney Bertram and his wife Pearl.
The story of how the company’s first production Hot Shoe Shuffle came together glows with the sunny optimism of an old-time show-business musical. The show will première on April 24, at the new Bryan Brown Theatre at the Bankstown Library and Knowledge Centre, and one of the company’s first big breaks was landing Daryl Somers to play the role of Max in this tale of seven tap-dancing brothers and their previously unknown sister.
Bertram has long been thinking about taking the plunge. “I have another business, Rod’s Sound and Lighting, which for almost 15 years has been involved in the amateur theatre world,” he says. “So over those years, I’ve always had in the back of my head that I’d love to start up a production company. We took on the challenge about 12-18 months ago to make Birdie Productions happen.”
With the aim of presenting large scale, high quality productions, Bertram formed his production team. All are experienced people he met through his business—Director Elle Zattera, Choreographer Craig Nhobbs and Musical Director Josh Ransom.
Another advantage flowed from Bertram’s sound and lighting business. Years of working on Bankstown Council events made him familiar with the Bryan Brown Theatre, as well as the Council’s cultural activities. He notes that Birdie Productions builds on existing local initiatives: “Bankstown Council have got a big arts scene happening, they’ve got the Bryan Brown Theatre, they’ve got the Bankstown Arts Centre, they’ve got a lot of group arts-based programs.”
The venue itself is a great home for the company, according to Bertram. “We’ve looked at the Bryan Brown Theatre as Birdie Production’s base. It’s only a 295-seater theatre,” he says, “so with all our productions we need to be a bit smart about how we put the shows on and how we sell them.”
Setting up an independent company is risky enough, and Bertram recognises the additional challenges of presenting theatre in Bankstown. “Bankstown itself is a hard target audience,” he says. “As well as developing the Bankstown audience, we definitely want to reach outside of the area as well. I know that people look at Bankstown as, you know, not a nice place to go to. We want to change that perception, especially from a theatre point of view, in the sense that you can enjoy a great theatre show in the heart of Bankstown.”
Furthermore, Bertram believes that musical theatre appeals to a broad audience. “I know a lot of people who have never been to a theatre show before but who will travel to and from western Sydney to the Hayes Theatre,” he says. “Places like the Hayes Theatre, and companies like Neil Gooding or Squabbalogic—they have changed people’s minds about musical theatre. From a Birdie Productions’ point of view, I’ve seen a potential market out in the south-west that we can build on.”
But how did the production team decide on their all-important first production?
When they sat down to talk about their first production, Hot Shoe Shuffle soon emerged as their clear choice. But, says Bertram, “at no point in the beginning was a celebrity even part of that conversation. It wasn’t until we asked ourselves, ‘Okay, what do we need to get Hot Shoe Shuffle off the ground?’ Some names got mentioned, and Daryl was one of them. So I sent an email to his general information email address and within a couple of days I had a response from his personal assistant.”
You see how this crazy optimism pays off?
Bertram’s can-do attitude seems utterly appropriate for Hot Shoe Shuffle. Although first performed in 1992, it pays tribute to those old-style musicals based on energy, enthusiasm, and great music. There’s also a multi-million dollar fortune at stake—but first the characters must perform the famous dance routine specified in their father’s will.
And like all good show-biz musicals, it has an inspiring worldview: “We will get the show together!”
When the production team cast the rest of the roles, fortune continued to smile. “The production team was blown away with the talent of the people who came through the auditions,” says Bertram. “It was great.”
Bertram mentions Luke Alleva, who plays Spring. “He was part of the professional production of Hot Shoe Shuffle back in 2013,” he says. “He was actually understudy for Spring for that production, so he’s come into the mix, and he’s been able to give us a lot of information and feedback.
Although Alleva grew up in Sydney’s west, he has toured with musical productions in Australia and performed in London’s West End and now lives in Melbourne. His Italian grandfather insisted he begin dance classes after 4-year-old Luke took over the dance floor at a great big family wedding. “So then I went to dance class and I’ve been dancing ever since,” he says. “I tap even when I’m in the house. I’ve done different styles of tap shows, from Boot Men with that Tap Dogs style to the old-school 42nd Street, and it doesn’t matter what style you do, you can’t help but smile.” It’s not surprising, then, that his 7-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son literally follow in their Dad’s footsteps; they too are wild about tap dancing.
Another person who taps around her house is Erin Bruce, who plays April, the sole female role. “It makes me instantly happy,” she says. “I love it so much.” She too brings overseas performing experience to the cast. Her family background made her performing career almost inevitable: her whole family is musical, and her grandmother has been a life-long tap-dancer. “She’s 83 and she only stopped dancing two years ago,” says Bruce.
Jay Johns (playing Slap) is also among the cast. He’s the dancer whose emotional performance in the 2014 season of So You Think You Can Dance was described by a tearful Paula Abdul as “the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.” The youngest cast member is high-school student Louis Vinciguerra, who plays Slide.
All three people I spoke with—producer Bertram, and performers Alleva and Bruce— describe how the group instantly gelled. Bruce tells me: “It works because it’s such an incredible blend. We all respect each other and love each other, and it’s going to show onstage. Even last night, we were supposed to finish rehearsals at 5 and we stayed till 7. It’s so much fun.”
And everyone mentions how much Daryl Somers contributes—and how much he makes them laugh. Alleva—who spends time practicing tap steps with Somers in Melbourne—says that the entertainment icon is “just great to work with and has really nice energy.” Bruce tells me: “We did our duet yesterday and I did not stop laughing for the whole 45 minutes. He’s brilliant to work with and he’s so generous and wants the best for everybody.”
These comments tell producer Bertram that his long-held dream is coming true. “I have to pinch myself some days and tell myself, ‘This is really happening’,” he says.
After Hot Shoe Shuffle, Birdie Productions will present Keating! The Musical—telling the story of the Bankstown boy who became Prime Minister—and Jason Robert Brown’s 13.
Birdie Productions presents Hot Shoe Shuffle at the Bryan Brown Theatre, corner of Chapel Road and Rickard Road, Bankstown.
For tickets ($38 to $49), visit www.birdieproductions.com.au or phone 9731 1620.