"Our relationship with the lovely seaside town of Budleigh Salterton goes back a long way," says David Phipps-Davis, Director of Imperial Productions' staging of Lerner & Loewe musical Gigi. "'Christmas Budleigh' is the affectionate name for our annual long weekend spent in the South West. It's planned to coincide with local late-night Christmas shopping and general festive cheer. We join in by putting on a show in the town hall for just two performances - and are usually rewarded with good audiences."
So, Imperial Opera was born. In 2007 the company changed its name to Imperial Productions. "The new name better reflects the progressive style and wide-ranging repertoire that makes the group what it is today," says the company.
"Imperial Productions is still faithful to its original agenda: to present a diverse (not to say eclectic) programme of rare, unusual, overlooked or forgotten works, and encourage creative and innovative interpretations and performances. To date, productions have included the works of Mozart, Gilbert & Sullivan, Offenbach, Shostakovich, Britten, Sondheim, Coward, Porter, Weill, and Rodgers & Hammerstein. Long live the rich variety of Variety!"
Talent, dedication and especially the enthusiasm of everyone in the company make its productions so successful. Nobody gets paid and company members have to meet all expenses themselves, which include travel and accommodation for their stay in Budleigh. "Due to the minimal number of rehearsals, a high level of dedication and commitment is required from all cast members," is the stern warning from its Chairman.
I know it's some way to Christmas but Imperial Productions are giving plenty of advance notice about their December show, clearly excited by being joined on this occasion by two stars from the world of professional entertainment who've been attracted by the prospect of a theatrical weekend in Budleigh Salterton.
"Gigi is a story of La Belle Époque, Paris at the turn of the last century: a world of beauty and luxury and sophisticates like Honoré and his handsome nephew, Gaston.
In this world love is a work of art and also a business arrangement. Little Gigi is being trained by her Aunt Alicia: she must learn how to allure, how to recognise the true flame at the heart of an emerald, how to choose a cigar - but Gigi doesn’t want just to be someone's mistress - even Gaston's. To his surprise Gaston discovers that Gigi is the only girl who doesn’t bore him.
Gigi is a show that bubbles like the champagne that flows through its vivid scenes. There is a tang of salty French wit, too and a lacing of all-time hits: 'Gigi', 'The Night They Invented Champagne', 'I Remember It Well' and 'Thank Heaven For Little Girls.'
A sparkling cast is led by Ursula Smith as Mamita, the role made famous by Hermione Gingold in the MGM film. Ursula, pictured above, has had a glittering career on the stage. Indeed, she is regarded as West End royalty – and not just because she played Queen Mary in Always, the fêted musical about Edward and Mrs Simpson. She played the Duchess in the 1985 production of Me and My Girl at the Adelphi Theatre. Playing opposite her was Frank Thornton (Captain Peacock in Are You Being Served?) and the leads were Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson. After her London run, Ursula was invited to play the same role on the US tour with the American company. Before Me and My Girl, Ursula played Evangeline Harcourt in the 1980s production of Anything Goes at the Prince Edward Theatre, which starred Elaine Paige, Bernard Cribbens and John Barrowman. She also replaced Sheila Hancock as Miss Hannigan in the original London production of Annie at the Adelphi and then played the same role in the first national tour. She played Mrs Connors (one of the two mothers) for the entire original run of Charlie Girl (again at the Adelphi). The other mother was first played by Dame Anna Neagle and later by Evelyn Laye, and Ursula got to sing a duet with both! She has also worked at the Royal Court, the National Theatre, most of the major regional theatres and won an Edinburgh Festival Award. Ursula was last seen in the West End in the original cast of Dirty Dancing playing the bag-snatching Mrs Schumacher.
Director David Phipps-Davis says: “We are thrilled to have Ursula joining us in Budleigh. We first worked together in Sail Away at Sadlers Wells and have stayed in touch ever since. She has seen several of my London shows and when I mentioned I was doing Gigi she offered to play Mamita – how could I say no?” Ursula says, “I was in the original production of Alfie with John Neville and when I saw David’s production of the same play at the Barons Court Theatre I knew I would like to work with him as a director, having already worked together as actors in Sail Away. I am thrilled to be playing Mamita in Gigi. I’ve always wanted to play it ever since I saw the MGM film and to be able to visit Budleigh Salterton at the same time was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
Joining Ursula as Aunt Alicia will be Viv Creegor, above,who is a well-known TV face having been the front-woman of Sky News for almost 15 years. After leaving Sky she trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles and has since worked in The Bill and in the films Stormbreaker (doing a scene with Mickey Rourke which she describes as “interesting”) and played an Irish nun in Ed Bye’s film Round Ireland with a Fridge. Coincidentally Viv has also just played an Irish nun (an evil one!) in a Grand Guignol play at Camden’s Etcetera Theatre. For Imperial Productions at the Baron’s Court Theatre, Viv has played Ruby (the older woman) in Alfie and Lady Wishfort in The Way of the World. Viv says: “It's great to be performing in Gigi - a musical that I've always loved. Aunt Alicia has some killer lines which I'm practising delivering as waspishly as possible!”
Also in the cast are lots of familiar Imperial faces, including David Phipps-Davis (who was last seen in the title role in Pickwick) in the Maurice Chevalier role of Honoré and David Swain (last seen as Jingle in Pickwick and previously as Ravenal in Show Boat) in the Louis Jourdan role of Gaston.
This semi-staged concert production will be directed by David Phipps-Davis (who previously brought to Budleigh productions of Pickwick, Showboat, The Biograph Girl, Babes in Arms and A Swell Party), with musical direction from Zoe Humphries who so successfully wielded the baton for this summer's The Boyfriend. It runs for two performances only on Saturday 4 December 2010 at 2.30 pm and 7.30 pm at the Public Hall, Budleigh Salterton."
Full details are available at http://www.imperialproductions.org/ Tickets can be booked in advance from Budleigh Salterton Tourist Information on 01395 445275.