That’s how it felt sitting in one of the most historic West End theaters and watching New Orleans’ own Roy Haylock perform in a hit musical. And when he entered in drag and got huge applause from the adoring sold-out house–even more surreal. Anyone who remembers when Bianca Del Rio hosted Drag Bingo at Oz would probably feel the same way.
It’s also a word Haylock himself uses to describe his improbable path from Gretna to international superstar.
Currently, Bianca Del Rio/Roy Haylock, as he’s billed, is starring in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, a based-on-a-true-story musical now playing its second year at the Apollo Theatre in London. At the beginning of May, Haylock took over the role of Hugo, the owner of a shop for drag queen attire, and his drag alter ego, Loco Chanelle. Haylock became the first drag performer to appear in the part. (It’s just been announced that Oscar nominee Richard E. Grant will play the role in the film version.)
In Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, set in the northern industrial city of Sheffield, Jamie’s about to graduate from high school and wants to wear a dress to his prom. His mother supports him unconditionally, but the school says he can’t. Complications ensue, Hugo becomes Jamie’s mentor, and everything turns out pretty much alright in the end.
Inspired by Jamie Campbell’s life and a BBC documentary about him, Tom MacRae’s book and lyrics deliver equal measures of sweet (Jamie’s Mom and his best friend, a Muslim girl) and sassy (Mom’s best friend and Jamie himself). Jamie comes off as so resilient that his self-doubt, stemming from daddy issues, seems a bit trumped up but it adds the necessary dramatic tension.
Dan Gillespie Sells’ music furnishes a catchy electropop score with the up-tempo numbers being just a bit more engaging than the ballads; the exuberant first act finale set in a drag club is terrific.
Director Jonathan Butterell fills up the stage with action yet allows each character, even the smaller ones, room to breathe and the audience to become invested in all of them. Kate Prince’s choreography combines hip hop moves with Broadway razzmatazz to excellent effect.
I saw Luke Latchman as Jamie, so fabulous that I didn’t realize till afterwards that he’s the understudy. A triple threat actor/singer/dancer I hope Latchman has more such rewarding roles in his future. The rest of the cast were all topnotch with the hardworking multicultural chorus kids who play Jamie’s high school classmates wonderful individually and as a group.
If Miss Del Rio makes her living as an insult comedienne, Haylock has nothing but nice things to say about Jamie’s cast and crew whom he described as “beyond kind.”
“Everybody’s been so giving and they’re all such generous performers,” he added. “I’m very spoiled.”
When he was approached earlier this year about doing Jamie, Haylock said, “The idea of it sounded amazing but I hadn’t done theater since New Orleans and I wondered ‘Can I do it, hit the notes, do someone else’s dialog?’”
After Haylock accepted the role, the first thing he was told is that there’s no template for playing Hugo, no singular approach he had to follow slavishly. “I give huge credit to the director and writer,” he said. “They’ve been great. They even added two lines for Hugo to be American.”
As Hugo, it’s to Haylock’s credit that he takes dialog that has an avuncular-sounding quality and infuses it with a more youthful energy. Not surprisingly, in his scene as Loco Chanelle, he sounds completely natural in a way, I suspect, that his straight predecessors didn’t.
While Haylock commented that “over the years, being in drag has become normal for me,” he still grouses that, to go on as Loco, “it takes 19 minutes to get ready for a nine minute scene.”
That’s about the only thing Haylock complains about.
“It’s so nice to be in the same hotel and one dressing room,” he said. “I’ve been shlepping around the world and it’s a huge treat to be in one particular room for two months. I love the schedule of it.”
Part of the production’s schedule is to install a new Hugo and Miss Hedge, Jamie’s teacher, every 9-10 weeks to breathe new life into the show and help increase ticket sales. Coming in at the same time as Haylock was Faye Tozer, best known for her part in the award-winning pop band Steps which sold over 20 million records throughout a five-year period in the 1990s.
After seeing Jamie, I went out with Haylock, Tozer and some other members of the cast and crew for dinner. Haylock and Tozer’s camaraderie was palpable with Haylock observing that as the show’s new kids on the block they leaned on each other as they became comfortable with Jamie’s routines and rhythms.
Although she plays the meanie in the show, Tozer could not have been more lovely and down-to-earth. After we had chatted for a while, I admitted I had not yet had a chance to read the program so didn’t know why she was famous. She took no umbrage, casually filled me in and we continued chatting about her family. No wonder Haylock is so fond of her.
In a different vein, I wondered if he was fond of the applause that greets him when he enters the stage. Asked what goes through his mind when that happens, he replied “Please shut up because I can’t think of my lines.”
Haylock better get used to such receptions. After he finishes his run in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie on June 30, he’ll continue his “It’s Jester Joke” tour in Provincetown, Canada, South Africa, Europe and the United Kingdom leading up to a September 21 performance at The SSE Arena, Wembley, the biggest ever solo drag show in the UK.
“It’s been a wild ride. This is my fourth tour, each year it gets bigger. Wembley has 12,000 seats. It’s pretty surreal.”
It gets surrealer. On October 6, as part of the biggest solo drag show tour in North America, Bianca Del Rio will play NYC’s legendary Carnegie Hall where performers have to be approved. “I didn’t think I’d be approved,” he said.
“We’re gonna test the waters and see how it goes. It probably won’t be the same after I leave.”
The West End. Wembley. Carnegie Hall. I asked Haylock if in his wildest dreams when he was performing at Le Petit (Cabaret, Rent) or Tulane (Gypsy) he ever imagined he’d be in any of those places. “Absolutely not,” was his immediate response. “That’s what’s been so amazing. And I can appreciate it a lot more now. If I were 20 [when this happened], it would be a nightmare.”
“I ask myself ‘How did all of this fucking happen?’ I’m grateful for everything that led up to it, performing with Ricky [Graham] and Becky [Allen], at Tulane and Le Petit. It’s surreal.”
If you can’t make it to Wembley or Carnegie Hall, then plan to see Bianca on November 10 at The Orpheum Theater when she comes back to New Orleans. “I’m always excited to return home. The past few years I’ve missed Mardi Gras which is very sucky. I always take time off the day after [an appearance in NOLA] just to catch up with everybody.” Haylock pauses in his rapid-fire delivery for a second. “After Drag Bingo, to be in a theater with everyone seated is insane.”
Haylock probably had more to say but he had a matinee to do. Though I wanted to tell him how great he was in Jamie, having known him for over twenty years, I know he’s allergic to complements. So, with a little coaching from him to get it just right, we left it at “It was terrible seeing you and I hated every minute of it.”
His response? “That’s your headline.” Surreal.