On Stage: Billy Elliot Arrives
BY GREG STEPANICh
Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy, and ballet classmates in a scene from Billy Elliot
|Ty Forhan (with Leah Hocking, as Mrs. Wilkinson, and the cast of Billy Elliot) is one of four Billy Elliots currently touring with the hit show.|
|Billy Elliot embraces his ballet teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson|
Each year, the producers of Billy Elliot return to northern England, where Elton John’s Tony-winning musical is set, in hopes of finding a version of its titular hero, a boy who goes against the grain to fulfill his dream of dancing. “We’ve auditioned up in northern England to find a kid to play the role of Billy, and they just don’t exist,” says Justin Martin, the US associate director for the musical, now touring the country. The challenges the character faced are still not so far from reality, it seems. “So [the show] is a truthful experience of what it would be like for a boy to want to succeed in ballet there.”
Billy Elliot, which premiered in London in 2005, won 10 Tony Awards in 2009, including Best Musical. It tells the story of a boy in a coal-mining town during the UK miners’ strike of 1984 and ’85 who discovers his talent for dancing while he is supposed to be training for the boxing ring. Encouraged by his ballet teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, he overcomes the initial objections of his widower father, wins the support of his town, and heads off to the Royal Ballet School to pursue a career on the stage. The North American tour of the musical comes to the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale from February 29 to March 11. It is a high-energy, often gritty show in which the teenage thespians who bring Billy to life get a serious workout. “The boys describe it as like being in Hamlet and running a marathon at the same time,” says Martin, 31, an Australian who has directed the show in his home country as well as South Korea.
Working hard onstage is just fine by Ty Forhan, a 13-year-old Canadian who is one of four boys who rotate stints in the lead role during the tour (the others are Zach Manske from Minnesota, Californian J.P. Viernes, and Kylend Hetherington, who hails from Michigan). Forhan’s theater bug bit him in the form of hip-hop dance back home in Ontario, and he says he understands his character’s greasepaint drive. “I’m like Billy in how we would do anything to dance. When you see the show, you see how much he pushes and strives, and how much he wants to be a dancer,” Forhan says. “And I can really relate to that when I’m onstage.” Martin says the actors portraying Billy work two shows per week, and then are onstage in a supporting role and close at hand as understudies, in case that day’s star must bow out unexpectedly. “We look for real kids; we don’t tend to look for showbiz-y kids” to play the part, he says, and each new Billy undergoes 12 weeks of training before facing the footlights. “We do a lot of work to find out who they are, and build the show around them,” he says. “Every time you see the show with each Billy, it has all these slight differences which are connected to that particular boy.”
The musical, which writer Lee Hall and director Stephen Daldry adapted from their 2000 film, also carries a strong political bent. The strike, which lasted almost a year, saw the miners’ union lose its hold on power to the free-market ideology of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Hall, who grew up in Newcastle during that time, writes that it felt like an entire way of working-class life was under siege. Rich Hebert, who plays Billy’s father, says it wasn’t much of a stretch for him to connect to Jackie Elliot’s mind-set. Hebert, 55, grew up in an “extremely workingclass” environment in a Boston project, and remembers the local Elks Club bringing his family a turkey one year so they could have Christmas dinner. Hebert’s father, a laborer for the highway department, always supported his son’s acting career, even lending him the last $500 he needed to finish his studies at Boston University. But Hebert’s background is always there for him to tap as an actor. “When I put on my mining coat and my cap, I’m looking at my dad in the mirror,” says Hebert, whose Broadway résumé includes stints in Cats, Sunset Boulevard, and The Life.
If the theme of pursuing a dream makes Billy Elliot universal, its emphasis on local color, particularly the “Geordie” accent, makes it specific. Dialect coaches work with the cast to make sure its stage denizens sound authentic. “We do Americanize to a certain degree so people understand it,” Hebert says. “But every time I’ve run into a Geordie—and there’s more than you would think who come to see the show—they’re always pretty happy with the accent.”
For Leah Hocking, a veteran singer and stage actress (The Wild Party, Jekyll & Hyde) from Marquette, Michigan, who originated the role of Billy’s dead mother and now plays Mrs. Wilkinson (“It’s such a joy; I love the role so much”), Billy Elliot’s strengths are manifold, from its “really diverse” score and choreography to its uplifting messages. “It’s about following your passion, it’s about being open to new things,” Hocking says. “Don’t judge anybody for what they choose to do, and actually celebrate it.” Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Ft. Lauderdale, 954-462-0222
photographs by kyle froman