Michael Ball bowls us over
Superstar Michael Ball bounces back into the West End as rolypoly wicked Count Fosco in The woman in white - Michael Coveney catches him, Theatregoer March 2005 ~
The Woman in White's never over until the fat lardy sings, and the overweight villain had better be played by a chap called Michael. Number 7 dressing room (the biggest one) on the second floor of the Palace Theatre has a new Count Fosco, and another great musical-theatre star.
Michael Crawford has been laid low by an acute flu virus and is resting up indefinitely on doctor's orders. So michael Ball is donning the foam bodybag and renewing his onstage companionship with Maria Friedman, his co-star in Stephen Sondheim's Passion years ago.
"This is my revenge on Maria," chortles this charming baritonal tenor, who became the dimpled darling of the West End in his first major role, Marius in Les Misérables, in 1985. "It's the revenge of the false eyebrows. I'm getting them this time."
In Passion, Friedman played Fosca, a freakish spinster consumed with unfulfilled lust - an extreme version of Friedman's Marian in the Women in White - and Ball kicked in as her not-so-obscure object of desire. So Fosca meets Fosco once more, in a piece that, like Passion, is set in the 1860s.
Ball didn't see Crawford in the role, but he saw the understudy. "It's a really clever score, and the nearest Andrew's to Aspects of Love. It has the same narrative drive in the music and there are beautiful motifs and phrases, and beautiful tunes, but they don't have big pay-off moments - except, of course, in my cod-Italian number. You can get away with anything."
The day we met, Ball had been wearing the fatsuit for five hours while Trevor Nunn, the director guided him through a dress rehearsal two days before he opened - on the same night as Nunn's new musical Acorn Antiques, was opening at the Haymarket. I bumped into Nunn by the stage door. He was showing the strain and had lost his voice completely.
The bouncing Ball never suffers like this. He gives me an impromptu performance of the powerful bel canto he will unleash in the big number. "I have never used this part of my voice before, though I did sing Papageno with Lesley Garrett on television. Its wonderful singing Andrew's music. he has a melodic geniusthat goes straight to the heart."
Ball's Lloyd webber connection goes back to The Phantom of the Opera, when he took over as Raoul in 1987. He then originated Alex in Aspects of Love and stormed the charts with his version of Love changes everything. Between Aspects and Passion he took six years away from the theatre, establishing himself on television and as a concert performer.
"Basically, I was making myself a name. It's a double-edged sword. It's good for prestige adn money. But I discovered doing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in 2002 - after another six years away - how much I missed being part of a company."
So now, aged 42, he has progressed from juvenile lead to leading man, a fact brought home to him when Cameron Mackintosh, who discovered him for Marius, invited him to sing the role of Jean Valjean in the recent concert performance of Les Misérables at Windsor Castle for the Queen and Jacques Chirac.
"I guess Caractacus Potts in Chitty helped me make the leap, and Count Fosco is a wonderful opportunity. You get to flirt with people on the stage and in the audience. the challenge is finding ways of revealing his nastiness obliquely until it becomes apparent that he's the evil mastermind behind it all."
Brimful of energy, Michael gathers up his dressing gown, lights a cigarette and pulls another Diet Coke from the fridge. One Fosco has flu.
A new Fosco will fly - like a barrage balloon.
Fatsuits you, Sir
- the Count Fosco fatsuit is made from light plastic and foam and weighs 3lb
- When he is wearing the fatsuit, Michael's chest goes up to 58in and his waist to a whopping 50in
- Michael has to drink at least 3 litres of water before putting on his costume as he sweats off a litre of fluid while wearing it
- the suit has to be cleaned every night and goes for a full wash once a week. It takes three days to dry out
- Michael has three suits