It's not easy being a Billy. Although one would never know it to meet one. And yes, there's more than one; there are four to be precise, each able to carry the load of the entire multi-million-dollar tour of Billy Elliot, which stops at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, Calif. through May 13.
And each of the four have something in common with the story: they're young, they dance and sing, and that can bring about problems for a 12-year-old.
"A lot of my friends think I'm gay," a very well-spoken 13-year-old named Zach Manske told me at the cast party for the Los Angles opening, held at Delphine Hollywood in the W Hotel. He joins castmates Ty Forhan, Kylend Hetherington, and J.P. Viernes as Billy.
"I'm not, I don't identify as gay," he continued, nearly flooring me with his insight, his sense of self and direction at 13. I guess carrying a major Broadway show will do that. Like Billy, Manske likes to sing and dance. "It's weird, because I get reverse discrimination. I tell everyone I'm not, and then they just tell me I'm in denial, like I'm not sure or don't know because of what they already think a dancer is," he concluded. "Of course, things changed when I got the tour," he laughed.
All of the Billies and all of the moms of the horde of children that travel with the production were having a ball at Delphine, and they should. BIlly Elliot, with music by Elton John and lyrics by Lee Hall and production by Stephen Daldry, is a tour de force, a nonstop smile from beginning to end and one of the few productions that can get even the most jaded theater-goer on his or her feet to cheer as Billy and his friends face life as kids with dreams in a dying mining town under Margaret Thatcher's England.
The star-studded opening at the Pantages is the best the West Coast can do for glitter, and it truly shines. The theater itself is a revelation; a grand house, renovated years back by Disney for the Lion King opener, this theater brings back the majesty of a night of theatre. As I walked the red carpet with friends old and new (Bruce Vilanch, whom I've done shows with, turned and laughed, "This carpet goes on forever -- do we get Equity payments for this?"; meanwhile, my new friend Melissa Manchester looked vibrant as she floated down) I couldn't help but think of all the stars from Hollywood and beyond that have come in under that marquee on Hollywood Boulevard. There's a lot of history there.
A few numbers in I overhear: "I hope this production is as polished as Broadway; the lead Billy seems a little rough..." I openly laughed. By the end of the play, the 13-year-old lead will have performed in 95 percent of the numbers, been on stage 95 percent of the time and have completed several grueling and show-stopping dance numbers. Adults fail at that kind of task every day; to put it on a 13-year-old who then delivers is unbelievable. Our Billy, Ty Forhan, was everything the audience could have wanted: charming, talented, vibrant, like the character, bursting at the seams.
Jacob Zelonky as Billy's friend Michael is a show-stopper at 11 as well. His main number, "Express Yourself," is such a joy I have never seen an audience in more of a love affair with a song, number or actor in my 35 years of attending theater. By the end of the number each audience member wanted to grab Zelonky and embrace him with the love and acceptance his character was exuding through the number of self-discovery. The GLBT themes in the play are not lost, or subtle, and so refreshing for a play recommended for 8 years and older. There's adult language -- yes, the F-word is said a few times (miners don't exactly talk like talk show hosts) -- and themes of self-discovery explored, including cross dressing, stereotypes on what is manly and what is not, on who can do what and be what without upsetting the norm. All the themes that made the movie so brilliant are here in this 2009 Tony Award-winning musical.
Many Broadway cast members are on tour, when you have that level of excellence and support on the road it just makes for a better touring company. Also featured are Leah Hocking (Mrs. Wilkinson), the teacher that would change Billy's life. I wanted more of her, of her life; she needs a huge number all her own. Something along the lines of "The Music and the Mirror" from A Chorus Line -- a number that big because she's that good. Rich Hebert (Dad) gives a nuanced performance -- the man trying to finish his life the only way he's known it, with one son becoming just like him, and another that is becoming something so foreign to him he can barely understand. Yet, he tries, and watching his character's development speaks to parents all over who have had to come to grips with change, especially about their children. Patti Perkins (Grandma) is a favorite character and her musical number of a life lost and lived is nothing short of remarkable; Cullen Titmas (Tony); Joel Blum (George); Cameron Clifford and Jacob Zelonky (Michael); and Samantha Blaire Cutler (Debbie) all round out the leads and do a spectacular job.
I remember growing up different and poor; both can be huge hurdles. I remember when I walked into a darkened theater for the first time in junior high school for the talent competition. My sixth-grade teacher thought I should host it for the entire school. I wanted to be in it, of course, so I got my first gig in showbiz. I was hooked. Nothing in life was better than entertaining. But I was young, gay, white and poor, in the inner city, and both my parents were disabled. We lived off government disability, check to check, until I could earn money and then helped my parents as a young adult. I know what's it's like to be told a dream is just that or that you shouldn't pursue one for this or that reason. I know what it's like to be misunderstood; hell, to not even understand myself. Why do I like what I like? Clothes that are different? Other boys? Will I ever not be poor? Questions I never thought I would hear addressed in song, but that's the beauty of Broadway.
Billy Elliot: The Musical manages to capture one of the most awkward of times in the most marvelous of ways. Not one person left the theater after a full three hours (yes, it's long!) with anything but a smile, with joy, with yes, a little acceptance. Across the street at the cast party I would hear how things haven't changed that much for kids today directly from the kids in the play: stereotypes still exist, parents haven't always been the most supportive, on and on. Recurring themes make great plays and it seems there may be a new prime minister but somewhere in Europe there's another little BIlly just waiting to dance facing the same prejudices and hurdles this one did.
Or perhaps at your house, maybe running around in a makeshift tutu?
See Billy Elliot at the Pantages or wherever you can. See it again and again. The love, the joy, the self-discovery, the feeling that only comes from great theatre is found in that production; it can't be bottle, it must be shared, in person, with friends. Don't deprive yourself of the joy of Billy Elliot: The Musical.
Tickets for BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL may be purchased online at www.BroadwayLA.org or by phone at 1-800-982-2787. Tickets may also be purchased in person at the Pantages Box Office and all Ticketmaster outlets. The Pantages Theatre is located at 6233 Hollywood Boulevard, just east of Vine Street, and the box office opens daily at 10am.
To hear and see more of Karel get the Karel App at iTunes or Google Play and visit online at http://www.thekarelshow.com for a live video and audio show.