Sunday, January 21, 2018
Stage

Title role in 'Billy Elliot, The Musical' tests stamina and talent

CLEARWATER

Finding boys who can plié and pirouette is one thing.

Finding those who can also act, perform gymnastics and sing with a Geordie dialect is quite another.

But talented, young, quadruple-threats do exist, as audiences will find out when Billy Elliot, The Musical comes to the Ruth Eckerd Hall stage Tuesday at 8 p.m. and Wednesday at 2 and 8 p.m.

Casting director Nora Brennan has been auditioning lads for the title role in the musical since before it opened at Broadway's Imperial Theatre in 2008. The show, with music by Elton John, won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Brennan estimates that about 3,000 boys have auditioned for the coveted role in the Broadway production or for the national tour. Of those, only 25 became Billy.

The role is physically, emotionally and mentally demanding — Billy is onstage for most of the three-hour show.

"One director said playing Billy was like playing Hamlet and running a marathon at the same time," Brennan said. "These kinds of boys are very rare; not that many have the ability and training to do so."

Because of this, four Billy boys rotate on the national tour, including Ben Cook, 15, of Virginia.

At 5-foot-5, he's the tallest. Ben said he has wanted to play the part since he saw the 2000 film, which inspired the musical. When he was 12, he landed a part in the ensemble in the Broadway production. Later, he'd join the national tour, nabbing the role of Billy's friend Michael, then Billy.

"When I auditioned for Broadway, I was more of a singer and actor than a dancer," he said, "but I guess they saw my potential, so they worked with me to get up to par with my dance."

So how does one make it through lengthy high-energy numbers like the Angry Dance and Electricity?

"It's a very intensive rehearsal process. They just really drill it into our bodies," he said.

Recently, Ben perfected a Berani flip, an aerial flip with a half-turn that he performs off a piano at the end of the Born to Boogie number.

The other three Billys on the national tour are Noah Parets, 13, of Massachusetts; Mitchell Tobin, 12, of Boca Raton; and Drew Minard, 12, of Iowa.

It's unclear at this point which boys will be in the three Clearwater shows.

For those who haven't seen the musical, Billy is a motherless 11-year-old boy living in a small town in northeastern England. His coal-mining father has put him in boxing classes, but he discovers his talent is in ballet.

When his father finds out his son has traded boxing blows for ballet slippers, he is outraged, fearing for his son's masculinity.

In the meantime, Billy's dance teacher recognizes the boy's gift and prepares him to audition for the Royal Ballet School of London. After Billy's father sees him dance, he decides to help his son reach his dream.

Ben said that unlike Billy, his family and friends have been behind his efforts to become a great dancer.

"I go to a performing arts school in New York City where everyone is supportive," he said. "Most of my friends think it's cool."

Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at [email protected]

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