A West End star is returning to Wearside to play his home stage for the first time.
Michael Pickering, 30, has appeared on stages around the world from London to Hong Kong in hit shows including Jesus Christ Superstar, Wicked, Batman Live arena tour, Grease and Mamma Mia.
Now, more than a decade after Thornhill School’s music department sparked his love of the stage, he’ll be appearing at Sunderland Empire in one of theatre’s greatest male lead roles.
He’s donning the famous red jacket of Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys, which tells the hard-hitting story behind the upbeat hits of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
He will be playing the frontman as an alternate to a fellow North East actor - Matt Corner, from Darlington, who formerly attended Gala Theatre Stage School in Durham.
“The role is so vocally and physically demanding, that they always have an alternate Frankie,” explained Michael. “I’ll be doing two shows a week, which will mean I’m doing two matinees in the first week at the Empire, and one Thursday evening and a Saturday evening the second week.
“I’ve never taken a professional show to the Empire. I’ve played the West End and all over the world, but never Sunderland, so it was great when I saw Sunderland on the tour list,” said the former Barnes Junior school pupil.
He added: “It means all my mates can come and see what I actually do, they think I just prance around in a tutu.”
Michael is one of three former Thornhill pupils who’ve gone on to have a glittering career in the West End.
Like his fellow alumni - Ben Forster, who won ITV’s Superstar show and is soon to play the lead in Phantom of the Opera, and Gary Watson, who’s appeared in shows including Cats, Matilda and the current West End production of Jersey Boys - Michael says he has his teachers to thank for his career.
“Mrs Bennett (who has since retired) and Mark Leadbeater do something right,” he said. “I remember Mark making me sing when I was 16 and it just went from there.
“It was one of those things where a decision somebody else made set me on a path for life. Until that point, I’d never been interested in theatre, I was into sports.”
Michael, who moved to London after school to study at ArtsEd, added: “Gary, myself and Ben have all been very lucky with our career paths. I appeared with Ben in Jesus Christ Superstar and Gary in Mamma Mia and Kiss Me Kate for BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall.”
He took on the role of Frankie this week and says he can’t wait to travel the country with the show, which proved so popular in Sunderland last year it’s returning next month for another fortnight’s run.
“Of all the male roles in theatre, Frankie is one of the biggest and hardest,” he said. “You go on such a journey on stage, from a 14-year-old boy to an 80-year-old man.
“As an actor, it’s a journey for you too.”
•Jersey Boys is at Sunderland Empire from September 8-19. For tickets Tel. 0844 871 3022.