As singers go, shoes don’t come much bigger to fill than those of Whitney Houston.
But North East performer Zoe Birkett says she’s living the dream playing her hero every night on stage.
She’s starring as Rachel Marron, the role made famous by Whitney and her vocal Olympics in the hit film The Bodyguard.
After appearing in the role as an alternate to Alexandra Burke in the last tour of the musical, Zoe, from Consett in County Durham, says she can’t wait to bring the foot-tapping spectacle back to the North East next week when it begins a two-week run at Sunderland Empire.
“I remember going to Sunderland Empire when I was younger, so it’s great to be coming back. It means I get to sleep in my old bed for a couple of nights and my family and friends can come to the show again,” she said.
Zoe, who shot to fame after coming fourth behind Gareth Gates and Will Young in Pop Idol 2002, says it was a challenge taking on the role of one of the world’s greatest singers – but she’s loving every minute of it.
“I’ve had an amazing year doing it,” she said.
“It’s a great challenge, it’s two hours of acting and singing. Your stamina has to be right up there.
“You have to live it. No alcohol, no talking after 10pm or after the show, but it’s really helped me to grow as a performer.”
The show is based on the 1992 Oscar-nominated Warner Bros film The Bodyguard, which starred Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner, with the musical version nominated for four Laurence Olivier Awards including Best New Musical.
But unlike other musicals spawned from films, which stick rigidly to the original, this one has added tracks from Whitney’s back catalogue that didn’t feature in the film,
So as well as Queen of the Night, Run to You, I Have Nothing and, of course, I Will Always Love You, the audience can also enjoy live performances of classics So Emotional, One Moment in Time and I Wanna Dance with Somebody.
Zoe says: “These are legendary songs that I used to sing as a kid, and every week on Pop Idol.
“Some of Whitney’s hits have been added to the musical and they work really well. Everyone gets up and enjoys themselves. But it isn’t just about the music, we take the audience on a real journey.
“When the story starts Rachel is this powerhouse diva who only has a certain amount of people around her. Then she falls in love and everything that comes with that.”
Like most women of her generation, Zoe was familiar with the film, but she says she went back to the ’90s classic in preparation for the role.
“You have to be respectful of the legacy of Whitney,” she said. “But no one is trying to be her, it’s more looking at the role she created and making it your own.”
Speaking about why Whitney struck such a chord with people, Zoe said: “Her control, her range, the quality of her voice. For me, as a kid, it was non-stop Whitney, Mariah and Aretha Franklin.
“The vocal chord is a muscle and they trained it so well, the power, the clarity.”
Zoe, who has also appeared in West End productions of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Thriller Live, says she’s enjoying the musical theatre direction of her career.
“I think the best thing about this business is that different things come up at different times,” she said. “I’ve just been to New York and I’ve been talking about TV and theatre opportunities over there.
“Theatre is a major part of my life, but I’d like to do a small EP at some point in the future.”
Zoe says that when she appeared on Pop Idol, one of the very first music talent shows, she didn’t realise it would lead to a career on the stage.
“I’m so happy I did it when I was young,” she said.
“You don’t think about things so much when you’re young, I was singing on live TV every week and I just loved it and took it in my stride,
“I had just turned 16 and back then you didn’t have the access to social media.
“And my parents were good at protecting me from what was being written, so it allowed me to be a child as well.”
•The Bodyguard is at Sunderland Empire from March 1-12. Tickets are available in person at the Box Office on High Street West, from the Ticket Centre on 0844 871 3022 or online at www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland.