Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Big Interview: Gloria Onitiri

Gloria Onitiri is currently playing Grimm in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Park Theatre. Directed by Jez Bond, the original musical provides an alternative pantomime experience for all the family. 

In May 2013 Gloria was nominated for West End Frame’s Understudy of the Year Award for alternating Rachel Marron in the original London cast of The Bodyguard (Adelphi Theatre). She later went on to take over the role full-time.

In the West End Gloria has also played Nala in Disney's The Lion King (Lyceum Theatre) and understudied Mrs Thistletwat, Girl Bear, Kate, Lucy and Gary Coleman in Avenue Q (Noël Coward Theatre).

Her stage credits also include: Egusi Soup (Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds), The Tempest (Bath Theatre Royal), Takeaway (Theatre Royal Stratford) and Been So Long (Young Vic), amongst others.

I recently spoke to Gloria about why she’s having so much fun in Jack and the Beanstalk, her secret to surviving a two show day in The Bodyguard and the support she received during Understudy of the Year as well as how ridiculous it is that Dreamgirls has never been staged in the West End…

The Park Theatre’s pantomime breaks all the rules of panto and is completely different to anything else – it’s essentially an original musical! What first attracted you to this year’s production?
Everything that you just said! I love that it breaks all the rules of panto [laughs] and it’s very silly. Also because we have such a small company, in terms of the writing and creating, it’s something us actors can get involved in. It’s a piece that we are embedded in. It’s not like we’re just coming in and playing your typical dame or panto villain. We can get our hands dirty! The Park is also such a great place, it’s so intimate. Normally with pantomimes you are playing to such a big house, but here it’s very different because the theatre is so small. The audience are right on top of us, and we’re right on top of them! When I say we’re going to be totally hands on, I really mean it [laughs]! 

Have you enjoyed rehearsals?
It has been like creating a brand new piece of theatre… but really, really silly. Basically all five of us actors, and even our director and stage manager, have found ourselves in a position where we’re totally being kids again! This really has been play time which is great because we don’t get to do that very often! Omar (Ibrahim) who plays Jack has had the entire room in hysterics. I don’t think there’s an off button when it comes to his playful improvisation [laughs]!

Does working on a Christmas show make you feel extra Christmassy?
Umm… I would like to say yes… but when you’re creating a piece like this you also feel the pressure! You want to get it right! Obviously we have all been in a completely different world! 

Gloria in Jack and the Beanstalk

So let’s discuss what people can expect. There’s no “Oh yes he is” or anything like that, is there? But it’s still a good family show…
Absolutely, I think that’s the best way of describing it! It a great family show, there is loads in there for kids who will just love the story and have so much fun – there’s lots of participation. There’s also some great stuff that the adults will notice. It appeals to every generation. Let’s just say it’s Jack and the Beanstalk… but not traditional. 

What’s the music like? Have you got any big Whitney notes in there?!
I mean… it’s appropriate for the piece, but I don’t want to give away too much. I don’t want to give any spoilers, as it were [laughs]. Let’s just say that maybe the most unsuspecting character gets a really great song… [evil cackle], I don’t want to spoil it for anyone!

You’ve done huge West End shows as well as these more intimate productions. For you, how does performing to thousands of people compare to performing to just a few hundred? 
Obviously they’re both so different and I don’t think I prefer either one. It’s great to perform to thousands of people because you know so many people are having a great time at once, but I think in terms of being anxious or nervous smaller houses definitely have an impact on me. You can really see the audience and they can really see you – you can feel their energy, especially here at the Park. Once you get over the nerves it’s a joy and it becomes so much more special. 

We obviously have to discuss Bodyguard memories. You were the alternate and then took over for a while before you left. What is it like to now look back at your time in the show?
Gosh… it feels like so long ago now! Getting up there and singing those songs to an audience who were so in love with the story… I definitely miss that because it was such a joy. I loved hearing people singing the songs back to you! I miss my colleagues; it was so great to be a part of an original cast. It was a really special experience and they were like family to me. The show was great and it was a marathon for us who played Rachel!

I can’t even begin to imagine! And, I believe you were the only person to do a two show day as Rachel!
Yes… twice!

Gloria in The Bodyguard
What’s your secret? How did you survive a two show day… twice?
Ummm… I just think it’s stamina and I’m lucky to have trained classically. It’s all about pacing yourself and making sure you’re warmed up. It’s not something I would advise people to do very often, because it’s such a big sing. I wouldn’t want to promote doing it, but training definitely helps.

Ok, I’m sending you to a desert island and you can take three musical theatre songs with you. Which three are you going to take and why?
Oh my god… ok! I love a question like this! I’m going to take ‘A Piece Of Sky’ from Yentl… Barbra Streisand. I love that song. I sing it all the time and it means a lot to me. I think of my journey in this business from the age of seventeen and I think, ‘yes – I’m still here’ and I still have that ‘want’ to fly. It’s beautiful... and that note at the end… woah [laughs]! Then I think I would choose something like ‘Awaiting You’ from Myths and Hymns. I just think it tells a beautiful story and it means a lot. I don’t know what it is, but it awakens something within me every time I hear it. It makes me feel very positive. 

What is your last one going to be?
Ah my third song… ahhh! Everyone’s probably thinking that I’m going to choose a Whitney…. but I’m not [laughs]. I’m going to choose… oh god! Just because it gives me jokes [breaks into song], “You're lyin', you're lyin'. I've never been so thin” – ‘It’s All Over’ from Dreamgirls – “Effie, we've all got pain”!

[laughs hysterically] Oh my goodness this is the best desert island song ever!
I would take that just because it makes me laugh so much [cackles]!

We need Dreamgirls in the West End, don’t we?!
I know! I would love to do that show! Literally, it would be brilliant and I don’t know why they haven’t brought it over. We’ve got so many great performers who could do it! Looking at the plateau of black talent that we’ve got right now in the West End, it’s a shame that more people aren’t starring in a massive West End show just because there aren’t enough roles. It would be so great to open a show which isn’t just about Motown hits, or getting people to be Diana Ross or Marvin Gaye, and instead has a great story, great music and great singing and dancing. I could literally name six or seven people who would just be phenomenal in Dreamgirls!

I really can’t believe that it hasn’t been done here!
Ok, c’mon lets champion it – we’re going to make it happen!

Let’s do it! Anyway… we need to talk about Understudy of the Year. You received so much support when you were nominated for alternating Rachel. There is so much support within the theatre world; it must be lovely knowing you have that behind you?
Do you know what? It’s amazing! And I thank everyone so much for the support with the award. You feel like there are people who really want you to work and to be out there doing stuff. It’s phenomenal and I can’t thank people enough, especially for when I was doing The Bodyguard. I had the pressure of alternating for Heather Headley, who is phenomenal, and then of course there’s the Whitney Houston thing. To had so much support behind me, not just from the public but also from other performers, while there were these two big names floating above my head was amazing! I’m very, very thankful.

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Jack and the Beanstalk runs at the Park Theatre until 4th Jan 2015.
Visit for info and tickets.

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