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Mark Shenton’s 10 best leading men in UK musical theatre 2017

Killian Donnelly in Memphis. Photo: Johan Persson
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It’s been nearly two years since I last compiled a list of my favourite leading men of musicals in Britain. In that survey, I mentioned that Philip Quast – a three-time Olivier award winner and one of my all-time favourite leading men – was missing in action, as he’d returned to his native Australia. The really good news is that he’ll be back on the London stage this year when he plays opposite Imelda Staunton in Follies at the National.

We’ve also since seen the arrival of new stars in the making such as Charlie Stemp and David Fynn, respectively blowing the roof off Half a Sixpence and School of Rock. They’ve not yet built up a body of work to make this list, though surely they will one day if they go on as they’ve started.

Here are my current contenders for favourite leading men in musicals, plus a few I’m keeping my eye on…

1. Killian Donnelly

Nobody has come through the ranks quite as forcibly as the brilliant Killian Donnelly in the last few years. Starting with his lead role in The Commitments (after previous supporting stints in Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera and Billy Elliot) in 2013, he wowed in Memphis in 2014 and then Kinky Boots in 2016. He is currently reprising the latter on Broadway. What I love about Donnelly is his apparent regular guy-next-door ordinariness – yet the moment he appears on stage he ignites it with an extraordinary voice and moves. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

2. Michael Xavier

Michael Xavier in Sunset Boulevard. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
Michael Xavier in Sunset Boulevard. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Here’s a leading man of the old school with his tall, dreamy looks and dimpled charm, but also with washboard abs of the new school that were shown to full effect as he emerged from a pool in English National Opera’s Sunset Boulevard last year, which he is about to reprise on Broadway next month. I first noticed him in a tiny fringe play about the late Rock Hudson at the Oval House called Rock in 2008, but he has also – like many on this list – served a solid apprenticeship in shows such as Mamma Mia! (he was Sky in a tour of the show), Miss Saigon and The Phantom of the Opera. But he’s also come into his own as a leading actor in his own right, with shows like The Pajama Game (taking over from Hadley Fraser for the West End transfer of Chichester’s production), Into the Woods (for which he was Olivier nominated at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, and Love Story (another Chichester transfer and another Olivier nomination for him). He’s also been brilliant in Assassins in at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2015 and as Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music at the Open Air in 2013, and was also outstanding in Show Boat in Sheffield the Christmas before last, but had to pass on the West End transfer because of a clash with Sunset Boulevard.

Interview with Michael Xavier

3. Ramin Karimloo

This Iranian-born, Canadian-raised actor began his professional career on the London stage, but in the last few years (and certainly when this list was last compiled), he has been forging a career as a Broadway leading man, earning a Tony nomination for playing Valjean in the last revival of Les Miserables there, a role he has also played in the West End. He was also a long-standing alumni of The Phantom of the Opera in London (in which he first played Raoul, then graduated to the title role), and originated the role of the Phantom in the ill-fated original production of its sequel Love Never Dies. He’ll be back on Broadway again this year, starring in the stage premiere of Anastasia in April. But he returned to the West End last year to show why he’s a top leading man in Murder Ballad at the Arts Theatre.

4. Michael Ball

Michael Ball at the Olivier Awards. Photo: Alastair Muir
Michael Ball at the Olivier Awards. Photo: Alastair Muir

Ball has recently completed a sell-out theatrical tour to promote a new album called Together with Alfie Boe, and now the two singers will go out on an arena tour to play to even larger audiences later in the year. His ranking has only slipped a few places this year because he has not otherwise been seen in the West End last year; the year before he toured in Mack and Mabel after a Chichester run, but it didn’t make it to town. But thanks to Olivier wins in such shows as Hairspray and Sweeney Todd, and originating roles in shows such as Les Miserables (he was the first Marius), Aspects of Love (playing Alex Dillingham), Passion (he was the West End’s first Giorgio in the transfer of Sondheim’s Broadway musical) Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the original Caractacus Potts), he’s still one of our most enduring leading men.

Interview with Michael Ball

5. Ben Forster

Winner of the Superstar! reality TV show to find an actor to play the title role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s arena stage tour of Jesus Christ Superstar, Ben Forster has now established himself as an authentic leading man, showing great acting and vocal versatility as he segued effortlessly from the title role in Elf the Christmas before last to taking over the title role in The Phantom of the Opera. He’s also been seen in the West End as Magaldi in the last London revival of Evita.

Interview with Ben Forster

6. Matt Henry

Matt Henry in Kinky Boots. Photo: Matt Crockett
Matt Henry in Kinky Boots. Photo: Matt Crockett

An Olivier winner for his knockout performance as Lola in the current West End production of Kinky Boots, Matt Henry also came through reality TV as a finalist on BBC’s The Voice. But he’s also served a diligent theatrical apprenticeship working through shows such as Avenue Q, The Lion King, Saturday Night Fever and The Rat Pack Live from Las Vegas.

7. Mark Umbers

A superb leading man, Mark Umbers owes a lot to the Menier Chocolate Factory where he starred as all the leading men at once in its 2009 revival of Sweet Charity that subsequently moved to the Haymarket, then as Franklin Shepherd in its 2012 revival of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, and currently as Georg Nowack in She Loves Me. But he’s equally at home in plays and TV drama – he’s here for the distance.

8. Oliver Tompsett

Olly Tompsett, as he’s universally known, is a performer I used to seriously under-rate: I had him down as a rock kid, thanks to his long stints in shows such as We Will Rock You and Rock of Ages. But then I saw him in White Christmas at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds at Christmas 2014 and I realised I’d got him totally wrong: he can also produce a lovely old-fashioned show tenor. And I’ve since come to love him in shows including Guys and Dolls (in which he took over as Sky Masterson last year), as well as a solo performer whose work with my friend Scott Alan on an album of songs with Cynthia Erivo is a stunner.

9. John Owen-Jones

John Owen-Jones. Photo: BBC
John Owen-Jones. Photo: BBC

One of our best musical theatre vocalists, John Owen-Jones has spent a lot of time – a lot – alternating between the title role in The Phantom of the Opera and Valjean in Les Miserables, most recently starring in the latter again on Broadway, in which he had previous. In fact he seems to shuttle between Phantom and Les Mis with almost alarming regularity. But this year he’s about to star in The Wild Party at the renamed Other Palace Theatre, and I can’t wait to hear those gorgeous tones singing Michael John LaChiusa’s score.

10. Norman Bowman

One of our most seriously underrated musical theatre actors, Norman Bowman has been brilliant in West End musicals including Michael Grandage’s production of Guys and Dolls and the fringe revival of Mack and Mabel at Southwark Playhouse in 2012. Last year he was one of the unassuming highlights of Murder Ballad. He’s equally adept at Shakespeare, from Jude Law’s Henry V to Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth; in one interview, he said: “My love for Shakespeare now comes a very close second to my love for singing.” He earns his place in this company.

I’m also keeping an eye on:

Tyrone Huntley

Tyrone Huntley in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo: Johan Persson
Tyrone Huntley in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo: Johan Persson

This astonishing young actor knocked me out last year when he stepped into the lead role of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar after originally being cast in the chorus. He was also brilliant in a supporting role in Memphis before, and is now featured in Dreamgirls.

Fra Fee

He’s only just missed being on the top 10 – last year he was stunning in The Fix at the Union, and terrific in The Wind in the Willows at Plymouth’s Theatre Royal. I’ve loved him in fringe musicals from the Landor to the Union, but the camera also loves him, as witness the way he was regularly in shot in the film version of Les Miserables.

Jamie Muscato

An actor who first came to my attention in Dogfight at Southwark Playhouse, Muscato was also a superb takeover as the football coach in Bend It Like Beckham in the West End and is currently outstanding in Lazarus.

Emmanuel Kojo

This superb singer came to attention in the original London production of The Scottsboro Boys, and has since gone on to blow the roof off Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre and then the New London last year with his stirring rendition of Ol’ Man River in Show Boat.

Gary Tushaw

A really wonderful performance in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s previously unseen Allegro at Southwark Playhouse last year was followed by an extraordinary turn as Tateh in the revival of Ragtime at Charing Cross.

George Rae

This young Scottish actor has caught my eye in shows like The Adding Machine at the Finborough last year and Grand Hotel at Southwark Playhouse in 2015 (where he was heartbreakingly good as Otto Kringelein, the dying Jewish accountant making one determined last effort to live before he dies).

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