Sharon Millerchip rollerblades down Bondi Beach's esplanade, like something out of Xanadu -- the 80s roller-derby of a film that had Olivia Newton John swinging and singing with Gene Kelly.
Her own razzle-dazzle motions and fresh face make heads turn, but Millerchip seemingly is lost in her own fantasy.
"I grew up watching the Sunday musicals," Millerchip reflects. "It wasn't so much that I wanted to be exactly like any one of them. I guess I was seduced by them all." Now she has her own fans and the lead in the most technically-advanced production ever staged in Australia.
As Belle in Disney's Beauty and the Beast which opens at Her Majesty's Theatre on October 19, Millerchip began winning over audiences and critics after joining the company towards the end of last year in Melbourne. Reportedly costing $13 million to stage, Beauty (as she calls it) is a bonanza of costumes, wigs, lighting and special effects.
Even the flawless character of Belle has been revamped. "She has acquired a lot of 90's Disney characteristics. She is fiercely independent, very intelligent, opinionated and courageous. But I don't know if anyone could be as good as Belle," says Millerchip who is already known to theatregoers for roles in the hit musicals, Cats and Phantom of the Opera.
In the Sydney Theatre Company's fusion of fairytales, Into the Woods, she played Little Red Riding Hood in a "black bobbed wig, a big skirt and a red vinyl corset". "She was jail-bait," says Millerchip. "She was young, she was bad on the inside, she was naive and innocent -- a mass of contradictions. Then came Falsettos for the Sydney Theatre Company. I played a Jewish lesbian chef. At least I know I'm not typecast."
The energetic Millerchip has settled into a seat at the Bondi Trattoria. (A regular haunt, part-owned by her boyfriend Andrew). After delivering our coffees, a waitress remarks to Millerchip: "Wow, you look purriddy" and the cafe crowd is staring, enchanted by her animated storytelling -- or as the resident directory of Beauty and the Beast, Gail Esler, calls it her "star quality".
"It's a term I don't like to use, but it is that extra spark that makes her personality an interesting one, which really grabs your attention and elevates her to a different level," said the director who first spotted the performer in her cabaret group, Combo Fiasco. "It's where I first saw her sense of humour and fun and wit," notes Esler.
Combo Fiasco (Millerchip, Shaun Murphy and Tony McGill) "formed when I was terribly bored in Melbourne doing Phantom. Marina Prior asked some of us to perform in her restaurant," explains Millerchip pragmatically. Recently the group has toured Melbourne and Canberra, with critical success, and has released a CD.
Raised in a strictly non-theatrical family on Sydney's north shore, Millerchip has been studying singing and dancing since she was five. "Ever since I was very young I've had a clear idea about what I wanted to do. My parents were totally surprised at the whole thing and they were waiting for me to grow out of it. It was costing them so much money. I must have been a real pain-in-the-neck kid, always dragging people into the lounge room with some dance I'd made up."
Though no amount of experience can overcome her stage anxiety. "The curtains go up and there I am. Round about opening night I think that I have chosen the wrong career. I think: 'Why do I do this?' I hate the feeling so much, the nerves and anxiety are so great -- I hate it. But then, after opening night I think, Ohh that was sooo easy! It was great. Yeah ... I love it, I love it."
Suddenly her focus is diverted when quite a handsome man looking Bondi-cool takes a table near us.
"That's Andy," she enthuses.
But I persist. "Film and television would seem a natural progression?"
Millerchip retorts: "I don't pretend I can do all those things. I just saw Stealing Beauty (the Bertolucci film starring Liv Tyler) and there is no way in the entire world I could play that role. She's the most beautiful creature that ever walked the earth. There is no way I could do that."
And before I can ask her any more, Millerchip is across the room and she and Anthony are locked in a dramatic embrace worthy of applause.