Billy Elliot the Musical won 10 Tony Awards for its story of an English boy who struggles to persuade his coal miner father to let him pursue a career as a ballet dancer. For all the achievement of the book and lyrics by Lee Hall and the music by Elton John, the show depends on the four youngsters who alternate playing the title character.
"They're onstage for three hours,'' says Kurt Froman, the resident choreographer who works with the boys. "It's the equivalent of running a marathon and playing Hamlet, that's what (director) Stephen Daldry compared it to.''
Giuseppe Bausilio, 13, was scheduled to play Billy in Friday's opening performance in Tampa, but each of the boys in the company who do the role — the others are Kylend Hetherington, 13, Lex Ishimoto, 12, and Daniel Russell, 14 — will take turns during the eight-show week. To play Billy requires top-notch ballet technique, but the role also has a lot of tap dancing, not to mention acting and singing. Ishimoto's version of Billy's showcase number, Electricity, is different in that he incorporates street dance into his performance, while the others take a more balletic approach.
Froman, a former New York City Ballet dancer who coached Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis for their dancing in The Black Swan, admires his young charges' commitment. "It's a pretty intense schedule,'' he says. "When they're not performing or rehearsing or taking dance class, they're in school with a tutor. Sometimes I have to rule with an iron fist — these are boys, after all — but more often than not we have a fantastic time playing in class. I get to teach them new steps. They all love to jump.''
Billy Elliot runs through Feb. 20 at the Straz Center. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Previews today at 2 and 7:30 p.m. $48-$87. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; strazcenter.org.
John Fleming, Times performing arts critic