Last Friday night, Grandstreet Theatre became the first U.S. nonprofessional theater company to stage the sensationally popular, multi-award-winning musical, “Billy Elliot.”
It's one of the top Tony Award winning plays ever, with 10, including Best Musical.
It’s also won a stunning number of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and international awards.
And one of the Tony Award-winning actors who played the role of Billy Elliot in the 2009 production, Trent Kowalik, emailed Grandstreet’s Billy on opening night, wishing him good luck, to “have fun and break a leg.”
Well, Grandstreet audiences can breathe a sigh of relief. Grandstreet’s Billy, Seamus Whyte, didn’t follow Kowalik’s latter advice.
Performances run Wednesdays through Sundays, through May 15.
Set to music by Elton John, “Billy Elliot” is the dramatic story of an 11-year-old boxer who stumbles into a ballet class that changes his life.
Billy and his family live in a northern England mining town during the 1984 miners’ strikes.
Billy’s father and brother, both miners, are on strike and fighting for economic survival, when Billy discovers his life’s passion -- dancing.
Offered a chance to audition for the Royal Ballet School in London, Billy has an ugly confrontation with his father and his brother Tony, and his dream to dance begins to slip away.
The cast of 37, ranging from 8 years old to a grandma, has been learning tap and ballet under the inspired direction of guest choreographer Blair Bybee, a former Grandstreet artistic director.
He and Jeff Downing, the current artistic director, co-directed the production, and Downing is thrilled with the result.
“It’s a monster of a show,” said Downing. “If we hadn’t had split staging, it wouldn’t have happened.”
“The scale kind of surprised me,” he said. Not only was there dance classes, tap and ballet shoes to find for 37 cast members, but also a minimum of three costumes apiece, plus the directing and choreography of 18 musical numbers and a live band of about seven musicians.
As a longtime Grandstreet fan, this writer admits it takes real guts for a theater to announce it’s doing “Billy Elliot” and not have a clue who the heck is going to be the lead.
But Downing couldn’t be more pleased that Whyte stepped up as Billy.
And also the fact that he has 13 men singers who learned how to tap dance.
“Sometimes you have to jump off a cliff and believe that the right people will come along,” he said. “Billy carries the entire stage for 2½ hours.”
Until this show, Whyte had barely danced before except for a brief stint in a “Nutcracker.”
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, it was dance lessons for Whyte and Bybee -- sometimes with other cast, other days solo -- as well as nightly rehearsals.
“It’s just amazing to see how far he could come,” said Downing. “Blair was cramming a year’s worth of ballet and tap into two months.”
“The thing I love,” he added, “is that we have eight people making Grandstreet debuts and six pairs of parent and child in the show.
“I hope the community understands -- this could be you.”
“It’s a beautiful show,” said Downing. “How can you not root for this kid?”
“The heart of the story is the sacrifice of parents.”
Downing called himself a Billy Elliot. His own father worked on a truck assembly line to send Downing to college.
Unlike parents we might know, the adults in the play are terrible to their children, said Downing. There’s a lot of harshness and not a lot of hugs.
“It’s not that there wasn’t love,” he said. “It’s just different.”
Wrapped in some “razzle dazzle,” dance scenes are some “real storytelling moments.”
Whyte decided to try out for the play after singing two of the “Billy Elliot” songs at Grandstreet’s launch party.
“I like Grandstreet and I like acting,” said the 13-year-old CR Anderson eighth grader.
His biggest challenge, he said, “was definitely the amount of time I put in.”
There were six hours of tap and ballet classes, plus something like 15 hours of rehearsals weekly. And being the lead, he had to be at all of them.
“It has a great story line,” Whyte said of why people might want to see the show. “There are very great and powerful moments in the show. It’s really entertaining. It’s just so interesting.”
“Emotionally ... this is probably the most challenging part I’ve ever played,” said John Rausch, who plays Billy’s dad. “The first two-thirds of the show he’s a significant butt head. I flip the switch somewhere in the middle of act two.”
“This play tears me up,” he said. “It’s so beautiful. I just love this piece.”
One of his favorite parts is a theatrical dance number where the miners and police are battling it out.
The music and dance aren’t an aside to the story line, he said, they are a powerful tool for advancing it.
There’s also an incredibly revelatory dance and song, “Electricity,” that is indeed electrifying in its power, said Rausch.
“That kid is amazing,” said Rausch of Whyte.
“I don’t know what it is about this part,” said Rausch of the dad’s role. “It gobsmacks me. It just has a grip on my soul.”
He’s been telling people, “If you see one piece of theater in the next 10 years -- see ‘Billy Elliot.’”
Performances run 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2:30 Sunday through May 15., at Grandstreet Theatre, 325 N. Park Ave., 447-1574 or www.GrandstreetTheatre.com
Tickets range from $17 to $21 for adults, $12 for children.