Gemma-Ashley Kaplan on the wild world of Cat Stevens

Gemma-Ashley Kaplan endured many setbacks before finally having her moment in the spotlight.

South African-born actor Gemma-Ashley Kaplan believes fate played a hand when she auditioned for the female lead in Moonshadow, a new musical by English singer-songwriter Yusuf Islam, better known as Cat Stevens.

“I auditioned with an African song that I sang a cappella. The director knew the song and started signing with me in Swahili – it was an incredible audition,” she says, her chocolate eyes widening at the memory. ‘‘They offered me the job a couple of hours later.’’

But things might have turned out quite differently for the young actor. Curled up in a chair at the Princess Theatre, where the musical will make its world premiere later this month, Kaplan recalls the challenges her family faced when they decided to leave South Africa for a safer place in 1997.

Kaplan was 11 when she and her two younger sisters, Dena and Ariel, reluctantly left friends and familiarity and landed in a foreign place called Caulfield South.

But in hindsight, the petite performer, now 26 says she’s grateful to her parents for uprooting the family. She says moving to Australia gave all three sisters a chance to explore the performing arts talent their parents could see bubbling away in them.

‘‘It was really tough, but I knew that my parents were doing it for the safety of the three of us and the opportunities,’’ says Kaplan, who was initially bullied at school because she was different.

‘‘I had an accent and I wasn’t the coolest kid. I had big round glasses, was terrible at sport and I liked music, dancing and acting. I spent many a lunch time in the music room but I wasn’t unhappy in the least,’’ she says. ‘‘Eventually I found my place and now I feel connected to the country,’’ she says.

The bright opportunities that her parents promised are beginning to come her way. This month Kaplan will play Lisa, the female lead in Moonshadow, a musical that showcases the songs that made Cat Stevens a household name in the 1960s and ’70s. Wild World, Father and Son, Peace Train and, of course, Moonshadow are among the songs that have been woven into a fantastical story about a quest for universal happiness and understanding.

Now called Yusuf Islam, following his conversion to Islam, the singer-songwriter has been heavily involved in the Melbourne rehearsals. He says it was Kaplan’s rendition of The First Cut is the Deepest that really impressed him. ‘‘It was so moving, we knew we’d found the right lass,’’ he says. ‘‘Her bubbly personality and those bright eyes won us over.’’

Kaplan was educated at Mount Scopus in Burwood before training at Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. In her final year at WAAPA, she played Maria, the female lead in the academy’s production of West Side Story with Gareth Keegan, who won the starring role, Stormy, in Moonshadow.

“We were ecstatic when we found out,” says Kaplan.

Their characters are lovers who believe they’re meant for each other but can’t be together.

Having been told in the past that their chemistry is electric, Kaplan hopes they can recreate that magic on the Melbourne stage.

But none of this might have happened if Kaplan’s burgeoning international career hadn’t suffered a serious setback in 2009. After being asked to reprise her West Side Story role on Broadway – Kaplan’s dream gig – she was forced to turn it down because she did not have a Green Card entitling her to work in the United States.

Although her big Broadway moment was crushed by red tape, Kaplan says she’s extremely thankful for the experience. It gave her the chance to perform in concerts and shows with Broadway stars – more than many aspiring actors ever achieve. “Many of my dreams came true over there.”

Kaplan returned to Melbourne to lick her wounds before scoring a recurring role as Molly Baker in Neighbours.

She says the upside of working in Melbourne is the Australian approach to stage and television drama. ‘‘Australian actors have a realness about them; they’re not in your face,’’ says Kaplan.

The fact that Yusuf Islam chose to premiere his musical in Melbourne is a huge coup for Australian music theatre, she says, and provides a rare chance to create characters from scratch instead of within the boundaries set by Broadway. ‘‘It will come from here,’’ says Kaplan, tapping her heart. ‘‘Sometimes we’re trying to emulate the Americans,’’ she admits. ‘‘If it’s forced upon me or I’ve watched a video of someone who did it, suddenly I become an imitator.’’

Kaplan says she lost her South African accent soon after moving here. ‘‘I have always had a really keen ear for accents and can mimic voices really well. This helped me immensely when I moved here and when I moved to the US. I think accent work is one of my favourite parts about adapting a new character. A person’s voice and dialect have an enormous impact on their persona.’’

Yusuf Islam says the quality and electricity of theatrical talent in Melbourne has really impressed him. ‘‘It’s also a very art and music-oriented city with a great multicultural mix,’’ he says.

As rehearsals continue before Moonshadow’s opening night on May 31, Kaplan could be forgiven for feeling a little chuffed with her achievements to date. But she is having none of it.

‘‘It’s a tough industry. Working on Moonshadow is great, but it’s three months and you’re done.’’

With that in mind, she will be travelling to Los Angeles for more auditions and writing a musical sitcom with her sisters Ariel, who played young Nala in The Lion King in Sydney, Melbourne and Shanghai, and Dena, a regular on ABC’s Dance Academy and a singer-dancer in The Lion King.

Kaplan’s experience is proof that the darker the adversity we face, the brighter we shine when we overcome it.

* Moonshadow opens at the Princess Theatre on May 31. Details: visit moonshadowthemusical.com.au.

MUSICAL CHAIRS

Cat Stevens isn’t the first maestro to bring his music to a theatre near you – check out these jukebox musicals.

• U2’s front man Bono and lead guitarist The Edge lent their signature rock-writing skills to Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Tracing the beginnings of the arachnid superhero, the action musical paralleled the success of the Irish group with the longest-running preview in Broadway history. The musical also holds the title of most expensive production to hit New York theatres.

• Punk rock golden boys Green Day had their chart-topping concept album American Idiot adapted into a coming-of-age musical of the same name. Debuting in 2009, the musical took Broadway by storm and is spreading its wings globally.

• Mamma Mia’s writer has tapped into the Spice Girls’1990s hits for Viva Forever. Nostalgic fans are expected to squeeze into the costumes of their old favourites and fill theatres when the musical hits London’s West End late this year. While little has been released about the plot, it is sure to feature one theme: girl power!

• All Shook Up uses the rock ’n’ roll tunes of Elvis ‘the pelvis’ Presley to back an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Twelth Night. Melbourne audiences can look forward to this surprising union between the baby boomer heartthrob and the medieval bard when the production hits CLOC Musical Theatre in October.

• Movin’ Out features the pop rock classics of piano man Billy Joel to support a wartime tale set in Vietnam. While the musical’s success is undisputed – it has collected Tony and Grammy awards – its inclusion in the jukebox musical list is up for debate as no actors sing the songs; it is more commonly accepted as a rock-ballet.

• Californian surfer dudes The Beach Boys lend their musical catalogue to the stage for Good Vibrations. The musical had a mere two-month run on Broadway and harsh reviews criticising the plot as dull and predictable. But, most agreed the music was good.

• Folk legend Bob Dylan’s political and poetic anthems featured in the psychedelic circus musical The Times They Are A-Changin. But Dylan’s drawl and harmonica fused songs didn’t seem to translate well to the stage, and the 2006 musical didn’t survive long on Broadway.

• In celebration of the five years since the release of the Beatles first single Love Me Do a new musical will hit the West End in October. Let it Be will be a homage to the band’s rise to worldwide pop domination, and critics predict that, like the band, the musical will take the world by storm.

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