Gareth Gates is pulling on his cowboy boots and twirling his stetson in a foot-stomping tour of Footloose.
Playing Willard is the latest in a string of theatre roles for the pop star, and he says he’s enjoying getting stuck into a comedy role that gives him the chance to rock out to the ’80s hits from the blockbuster film starring Kevin Bacon.
He stars alongside Maureen Nola as Vi Moore in the musical based on the hit 1984 film, which is set to get Sunderland Empire crowds tapping their toes next week.
Stepping into Bacon’s shoes is Luke Baker, who is taking on the role of Ren, fresh from playing Theo in Green Day’s American Idiot in the West End.
Like many ’80s kids, Gareth says he was a big fan of the film.
“The film came out in the year I was born, but I was a big fan of it growing up,” he said.
“The great thing about this show is that it’s very true to the film: much of the dialogue is the same and it obviously has those big ’80s hits like Holding Out for a Hero.
“It’s great to perform big tracks like that every night, and the audience love it too. Everyone gets up on their feet for the end when we have a megamix and they end up leaving feeling on top of the world.”
Footloose wouldn’t be Footloose without the music and the show features the iconic tracks which helped it to become an ’80s phenomenon, including Holding Out for a Hero, Almost Paradise, Let’s Hear it for the Boy and title track, Footloose.
They form the soundtrack to the story of city boy Ren who has to move to a rural backwater in America where dancing is banned. All hell breaks out as Ren breaks loose and soon has the whole town up on its feet.
As well as giving him the chance to bring to life one of the most fun soundtracks on the musical circuit, Gareth says the role also gives him the opportunity to stretch his acting muscles.
“I’ve got the role of the comedy cowboy that can’t dance,” he said. “It’s actually my first time playing a comedy role so it’s a real change for me. It’s given me an acting challenge and I love it. It’s great to be the person in the show who gets the laughs.”
Gareth shot to fame on the inaugural series of Pop Idol in 2001, going on to sell over five million records worldwide. His version of Unchained Melody sold over a million copies in the UK and is the third best-selling single of the noughties.
More recently, he’s been treading the boards and has enjoyed roles in Les Misérables, Legally Blonde and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.
He says going back to his theatre roots makes sense.
“I’ve had a lot of success as a recording artist and I enjoyed the whole process,” he said. “My first theatre role was Joseph in the West End after Andrew Lloyd Webber gave me the part, I then went on to Les Mis and Legally Blonde, and I love it, I love the thrill of performing live every night.
“As a recording artist, a lot of the time you’re just performing to a handful of people in a recording studio, so it’s a real thrill to perform to a live audience every night.
“Joseph was actually the first play I ever did at school when I was eight and it was actually theatre, in particular musical theatre, that made me realise I could sing. So theatre was always a path I wanted to explore in my career. Then Pop Idol came about and it was great because it opened a lot of doors of opportunity to me.
“Singing is still something I love. I’m constantly writing and always doing gigs of my own. Next year I’d like to get back in the studio and record my own album.”
Gareth is also well-known for championing those with communication disabilities after struggling with his own, something which he’s proud to promote.
“I tend to get a lot of messages from people saying I inspire them to not give up their dream, even if they have a disability. I’ve never let anything stand in my way of achieving what I want to achieve. As a performer it would be easy for me to say I’m too shy, particularly for a role like Willard where I’m on the stage speaking for the majority of the show. But I’ve never let anything hold me back.”
•Footloose is at Sunderland Empire from October 11-15. Tickets from 0844 871 3022 and www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland