WALKING out on to the stage, Earl Carpenter was stunned by what he was seeing. Row upon row of excited faces, a packed house waiting eagerly for him to perform.
It was a sell-out, a full house for a show he feared was going to be a failure. Smiling at the memory, Earl said: “There is absolutely nothing like that moment. It’s just sheer exhilaration. That ‘wow!’ It’s what a performer lives for.”
It’s that unique, thrilling moment that Earl, now a world-famous West End and Broadway star, is hoping to give the young cast members of Disney Peter Pan Jnr. at the Regent Centre in December.
For months, around 130 dedicated local youngsters, aged from seven to 18, have been rehearsing weekly for the show which promises to be, according to Earl, “something nobody will be expecting”.
He said: “It won’t be traditional, although of course there will be the wonderful Disney songs. I’m not giving anything away because I want people to be really surprised.
“I want it to be that projection of imagination, what we did as kids when we spent our time creating fantasy scenarios, building castles out of bed sheets – it’s all of that.”
He’s hoping that the young cast will have their magic moment when they take to the stage in front of a packed audience and experience the thrill of performing in a proper West End-style musical show.
Earl, who is a patron of the Mayflower Theatre, reveals: “It will be scary, exciting and exhilarating for them. But there is no other scenario in which they will get to experience that moment!
“It will be incredible, absolutely incredible for them to get that applause from a really supportive audience.”
Earl, who runs Ginger Boy Productions, is a huge name in the world of musical theatre. He has starred as Javert in 2000 productions of Les Misérables alone. He has also appeared as the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera and taken part in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, rock musical We Will Rock You, Evita and Mamma Mia.
Southampton-born Earl has sunk his own money, close to £30,000, into producing the Peter Pan musical which has its first night on 11th December.
One of the reasons he wanted to give the experience of taking part in such a professional show for free is because he firmly believes his worldwide success is rooted in the fact that, as a youngster growing up in Dorset, he was involved in amateur dramatics on a big scale.
Earl said: “My love for the theatre was born here at Ringwood School when I was about 15. The drama teacher Liz Perry used to make us do Christmas concerts. Those musicals were my first introduction into that world. I really struggled at school, I failed every exam, with the exception of arts and drama.
“My drama teacher recognised I had a talent and really encouraged it, and without that support I don’t know what I would have done because I was incredibly challenged academically at school.
“I started going to amateur dramatics, which of course were all free, and I just fell in love with that world and I found I was actually good at it.
“What’s great about amateur dramatic companies is they give everyone and anyone a chance to do it which is essentially what we are doing with Peter Pan.”
Earl was a member of the Forest Forge Theatre Company, the Hampshire County Youth Theatre, the Balloon Theatre in Christchurch, Drama Plus at the Regent Centre, Poole and Parkstone Players, Ringwood Amateur Dramatics and the Bournemouth Operatic Society.
He laughs: “It’s a long list! They gave me the most amazing experience and really built up my confidence and self-esteem. The young Earl would never have been able to put on his own production.”
In fact, amateur dramatics gave Earl so much confidence that he went to the Jellicoe Theatre at Bournemouth and Poole College before co-founding the Big Little Theatre Company.
One of their first big shows was West Side Story, which they put on at the Winter Gardens in Bournemouth in 1992. Earl said: “We’d been looking for a venue and at the time they were running a ‘Save the Winter Gardens Campaign’.
We went to see it and it was like walking into an aircraft hangar; it had the third biggest stage in Europe and a capacity of 1,500. We were told that we were mad to take it on.”
It was that first night when Earl walked on stage worried that the theatre would be two thirds empty to see it was packed.
“It was such a wonderful moment,” he said. “And to be able to give that to the cast of Peter Pan – that moment when the lights come up and all you see is a sea of faces will be just incredible.”
What worries and saddens him now is that drama is disappearing as a subject from schools all over the UK. He is presently using the facilities of his old school in Ringwood for rehearsals and is impressed by how they seem to be bucking the national trend.
“Their commitment to drama is extraordinary,” he said. “Their school performances are truly amazing. It’s so lovely to see that Ringwood School has gone the other way and recognise that drama is integral to a young person’s growth.
“Their commitment is fantastic, given that there are so many environments now that are eliminating drama. It’s a national issue.
“It’s been evaporating exponentially over the last ten years. Who knows why? I think that is a question for the government?
“But I don’t think I would be out of turn in saying there are a lot of people who don’t understand the enormous benefits in personal growth, social interaction and confidence that drama gives young and old.
“It’s been fantastic to see that happening with Peter Pan. You have children who have really grown in self-confidence over the time we have been rehearsing.
“We also have some children who are on the spectrum and the enjoyment just pours out of them. Some of their energy is a little wayward but I’d rather they were turning snow angels on the floor, beaming like anything than not enjoying themselves
A spin-off of Peter Pan has been the creation of a show starring Earl himself called A Touch of the West End. He will be singing a whole host of songs from musicals he has starred in over the years.
Talking about how it came about, he said: “Some of the children wanted me to show them what I actually do and this is a way of doing that. It’s going to be good fun and it means I get to do a gig at Ringwood School again, which is just great.”
As the opening night for Peter Pan gets nearer, Earl admits to some nerves. “For me it’s a hell of a risk,” he said. “I’m paying for it, I’ve got no investment, no funding, the income comes from just the ticket sales.
“I am hoping that the local community turn out to see it as, if they do, they will be supporting a lot of extremely enthusiastic little performers who will get such a buzz out of being supported.
“So I’ve been having a few sleepless nights as it’s getting closer, but if the cast get that magic moment when the curtain goes up, then it will all be worth it.”
For more information about Disney Peter Pan Jnr. contact The Regent Centre on 01202 499199 or visit www.regentcentre.co.uk
A Touch of West End is on at 3.30pm and 7pm at Ringwood School on 23rd December. For tickets go to www.gingerboy.me