Individuality – Conversations with Billy Elliot cast

Emily Skinner, Cesar Corrales and Cast

Conversations with the Chicago Cast of Billy Elliot the Musical

By Michael L. Harris

From London’s West End to Sydney and Melbourne Australia, on Broadway and now in Chicago, Billy Elliot the Musical is taking the world by storm or perhaps by dance… It is, according to the New York Post, “The best show you will ever see.” And in my opinion they got that one right. After its opening two years ago on Broadway it won an astounding 10 Tony Awards.  At the 63th Annual Tony Award’s Sir Elton John said: “At its heart Billy Elliot is about a child’s emotional struggle for his right to dance and a community’s economic struggle for its right to work.” From beginning to end Billy Elliot the Musical is exhilarating and its message of struggle for individual expression and is never compromised. “The world’s bad enough without making it worse…what we need is in-di-vid-u-al-ity.”

Set in a background of political struggle in the small UK mining community of Durham, Billy Elliot is an adaptation of the award winning film by Stephen Daldry with music by Sir Elton John. Billy Elliot’s Chicago production is the show’s first US touring company.  A second US touring company opens in Durham, NC later in 2010 as does a Seoul, Korea production.  A Toronto opening is scheduled for 2011.

Billy Elliot’s Chicago run began on April 11th of this year.  The Daldry/John team was equally as hands on with this production as they have been with all other world-wide productions of the show. Daldry actually directed the show though a resident director, which ‘keeps the show in very, very good shape” says Cynthia Darlow, who plays grandma. Both Daldry and Sir Elton not only attended the opening night performance, they also donned tutus and joined the cast onstage for the finale!

The Billy Elliot story is so universal and so timely, yet timeless, that it relates on a soul-stirring level to every culture, race and individual. And whether intentional or serendipitous, the casting of an array of multi-cultural boys to play the lead role of Billy Elliot has only enhanced that message.

I recently had an opportunity to sit down with four members of the Chicago cast, and learn first hand from these extraordinary actors who are, night after night, Billy Elliot the Musical – Chicago.

J.P. Viernes as Billy 2 J.P. Viernes (Billy Elliot)

J.P. Viernes is of Philippine decent and makes his home in Half-Moon Bay California, a suburb of San Francisco. “I think my first audition was two years ago, I’ve gone through about five auditions already…they called me back a bunch of times…it was really fun, but it was really long.” J.P. was cast as one of the Chicago Billys. The role of Billy Elliot, the 12 year old lead character whose amazing dance moves and vocals solidify the show’s message is a role so demanding that it requires four young actors and an additional understudy or two to insure its energy charged eight show-a-week demands.

Inspired by his sister to start dancing at the age of seven, J.P. talked about his training for the role. “We started training for the show last November and from November ‘til December we trained in New York and then when 2010 came around came here to Chicago to train. A usual day begins at 10 A.M. …because “we also have to fit in 15-hours a week of school” in addition to the daily dance and gymnastics training. While that may not seem early, their typical day doesn’t end until midnight.  “Doing the show is really fun, but we have to rehearse to build up all the stamina we need for doing the show…” Rather than a distraction J.P. sees school as “kind of a rest just not to be moving around all the time,” though he misses his “friends at home.” The “last time I visited was at Christmas and I was only able to visit for three days.” His mom is with him in Chicago but his dad remains in California.

There’s a lot of hard work and sacrifice that goes along with the on-stage glamour. All that work has helped J.P. to better understand the character he plays. “I see Billy as a really creative kid…he really likes to dance…he really wants to dance…and  I think we can all relate to him, (referring to the four boys who play Billy) because we like to dance too and also because he went through a lot of challenges to get where he wants to be. And that also happened with us in trying to get to where Samuel Pergande and J.P. Vierneswe are now and playing Billy Elliot.” The young Billys are on stage dancing and singing throughout most if the 3 hour show, JP’s favorite dance is the finale ”it’s really fun and it’s like just a big celebration.” The choreography while generally consistent from Billy to Billy, is in part individualized to each. Particularly the dance number for “electricity” the song/dance Billy does in describing how it feels when he is dancing.

“When [people] see the show, I think they’re really going to like the dancing…and … the story too cuz it’s really emotional, there’s happy parts, sad parts, angry parts … it’s just a really nice show, and … its entertaining, I think that’s the main thing. The different casting brings different styles to each show so it kind of like makes the show different for everybody. So you could like see me one night and it would be way different from Giuseppe’s (another Billy) performance and I think that’s a really cool thing to see … I think more people can relate to it that way.

While he misses swimming in the ocean he loves interacting with the other cast members. He says Granma is “really funny and she’s really nice to all of us Billys and I think she’s a great actor.” On Mondays, his day off, J.P. can be found playing with the other boys in the local park. “We play games and have nerf-gun fights and last Monday they played some football.” 

J.P. says people might be surprised by the fact that he’s 13 “cuz I’m pretty short.” Though amazingly when these talented young men are on stage they look pretty tall, maybe that is only because they are filling pretty big shoes. In fact, most of the cast members are pretty short off-stage. I nearly walked past Gabriel Rush, one of the two Michaels in the Chicago Billy cast, though you certainly couldn’t over look his show-stopping on-stage performance of, “Expressing Yourself.”


Armand Schultz and Cesar Corrales Armand Schultz (Jacky Elliot, father)

Armand Schultz, who plays Billy’s father, Jackie Elliot, was trained as a classical actor and is no newcomer to the theatre. He, like the show itself, had runs on both Broadway and the London stage. Our discussion started off with a bang when I asked his take on the shows multi-ethnic casting: “Wow! I don’t even consider the different ethnicities, it doesn’t even affect me… each kid is his own individual, he’s his own person, but because I’m their dad, on any given night I just see four 12 or 13 year old kids who are just basically playing my son. They all have their own different energies but I wouldn’t consider that an ethnicity thing. I don’t even think it was the directors’ intent to do it…they literally went out to find the most talented young men they could find and it didn’t matter who they were… I saw it originally in London and the overall effect of the show affected me more than the kid… I think the most important thing is that you make a link between yourself and the boy…in terms of what part of that kid you see in yourself and that’s why the show is great part… I think that the story is so powerful and that what’s actually happening between the boy and his family and the boy and his life is so powerful that if you didn’t make that ethnic connection with that kid you would still have that same connection.

“What I think is really interesting about the show; the grouping of people, is that the show is not Americanized. It still takes place in a very rural North Country English town … it doesn’t look like America which is another reason why I think people will relate to the story in a different way, because it is a little bit removed from them. It doesn’ isn’t really them … I think a lot of times where you see film or you see shows where you go ‘oh that’s my backyard’ you relate to it in one way, but when you see it a little bit removed from it, I think you see a little bit of the universality of what’s actually happening in the story and I think that is a really big plus for the show.”

You’ve done a lot of classical work…how does that fit into this? “I know how to yell eight times a week??” He says a comic aside. “In a classical play you always have to work on the language to make it real…“I don’t know that these characters are larger than life. They’re sort of…of life, in most Shakespeare plays (for example) people are very large, they’re very large thinkers, he writes so incredibly well that their thoughts are huge, the Shakespearean text usually tells a lot about character, I think the action in this play tells more about character than the text. It’s the things that people do or don’t do with regard to their children, or with regard to the people around them that speaks loud…”

Patrick Mulvey, Cynthia Darlow and Miners Cynthia Darlow (Grandma)

Cynthia Darlow, is also a seasoned veteran and was a former cast member of the Broadway production of Billy Elliot before coming to Chicago.  Playing Grandma in a musical is a change from most of her former roles in more legitimate theatre. Cynthia who has two knee replacements several years ago is amazed to find herself in another musical. “I thought my dancing days were over…”

Cynthia had not seen the show until four friends who has seen it came along and said, “There’s a part in that show for you.” So she “bit the bullet” and went to see it. And “I said to my husband
‘Oh my God, I love this show, I have got to do this part, this show means the world to me.” Cynthia confides that she had a similar experience to Billy Elliot when a teacher took a personal interest in her career, driving her to and paying for her college boards.

The role of grandma has been expanded from the original film in which she was a fairly minor character. Here she sings and dances with the best of them … While grandma is now in her declining years and “suffers from a bit of dementia, I think she’s indomitable…she had a tough marriage and an abusive marriage, but she stood up. They were passionate and I think she would do it all over again if she had to.  The song she sings, “We’d Go Dancing” gives us an insight into her life philosophy” which Cynthia paraphrases as:  “if I had all to do over I’d say screw everybody, I’d go dancing and I never would stay sober…she’s a character, I love her.” She’s already told Stephen Daldry she’s “a lifer, I’ll play this part for as long as they’ll have me.”

However, her first reaction when asked to come to Chicago was “No…I’m a happily married woman and I knew it was at least a year’s commitment, but my husband told me I was crazy if I didn’t go in on it.” Plus he promised to come to Chicago twice a month to see her. “It’s actually made the marriage great…it’s been like a honeymoon” she says with a chuckle.

This show is “timeless…it’s a rags to riches story, it’s a coming of age story, it’s a political story…it’s just got everything going for it. The music is beautiful, written by someone who’s very popular.” She is of course referring to Sir Elton John, who not only came to opening night but donned a tutu and joined the rest of the cast in the finale. He also asked that the cast remain on stage following the performance so that he could greet “every one of us personally and he actually kissed me right on the face.” Cynthia grins.

In the “true sense of a musical” Cynthia says while you may not come out humming a song (criticism of some people,) you “don’t come to the theatre to hear the next top-ten single – you come to see the story being told and you only write a song (in a musical) when there is nothing else you can say…you have to sing. And what is being expressed is beyond the ability of mere words to communicate.” I had to confess however that I came out singing.

“When you are in a musical you really have to be like an Olympic athlete. It really does take a lot out of you. I work out every day, I vocalize, I watch my diet, I warm up for at least 15 minutes before the show…this is a show you cannot do unless you are in top condition. You have to be very, very disciplined. It’s a whole different muscle set than you use in a straight play.”

Cynthia believes the most important message of the show is “Don’t be afraid to be yourself.” And her advice to potential audience members is “don’t miss it.”

Miners Association 

Keean Johnson (Michael, Billy’s best friend)

Keean Johnson plays Michael, Billy’s flamboyant friend. The role of Michael in the stage version is also greatly expanded from the film and adds a new dimension to the shows message of individual expression. Keean’s show-stopping performance as Michael is incredible. He was also one of the Broadway cast members to join the Chicago cast. 

Unlike other cast members, Keean was asked to audition for Billy Elliot and originally auditioned for the lead role in the original Broadway cast. When four other boys were chose for that spot he filled the featured role of “Tall Boy” on Broadway for 400 performances without missing a single one. Later he was given the opportunity to move into the role of Michael which he played on Broadway until he was given the option of coming to Chicago to originate the role as part of the first U.S. touring company, an offer he eagerly accepted.

Originally from Colorado, Keean confesses that he loves the city. “I love the noises.” He loves acting and dancing and wants to make a career of it. “Playing Michael is such a challenge but so rewarding.”

What’s great about the show is that “Anyone can be Billy, it doesn’t matter what they look like, it’s their ability to dance and everyone in the show is just amazing.” Keean finds that working with different actors each night keeps the show “fresh.” And while the accent was a challenge, Keean had a bit of a head-start since his real-life father is English.

Keean’s training includes cardio on days when he is on stand-by and a warm up with the Ballet Girls and safety training on nights when he is performing and he takes about 1-12 hours of personal dance instruction a week. As one of only 2 Michaels he is on stand-by or performing every day except Mondays when the theatre is dark.

Even on Mondays he has a variety of dance classes including tap (which is featured in several of the Billy numbers.) But Monday is also the day when all of the 12-13 year Billys and Michaels meet in the park for football and rugby and to just be boys. On any given night after the performance you are also likely to see Keean making his way down the street in the company of family on a skateboard or scooter, and he can’t wait to try out for the upcoming Kid’s Chicago Triathlon that he and his brother plan to enter..

While his character Michael is presented as being gay, Keean believes that Michael is a boy struggling for his own identity and not really knowing for sure if he is (gay). He also believe that Michael is largely the product of the environment in which he has grown up and may not have totally come to grips yet with his own sexual identity. “It’s definitely a challenge…but I love the role.”

“I think the biggest message of the show is to love what you do. Too many people live their lives in other peoples shadow … we all need to learn to “express” our true passion. … no matter what it takes, no matter what it pays, … if you love to do it … that’s the best, … for me it’s theatre, I love it and I want to do it for the rest of my life.” His advice to other kids that want to go into show business is to “keep on training” and keep on trying.

In addition to the talented boys in the show, the cast includes a company of amazing girls who play the ballet students of a washed up dance instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson, played by Emily Skinner (pictured in photo below). Although her life has become drab and cynical she recognizes and nurtures young Billy’s talent.

Corrales, Skinner, Hammond and Ballet Girls

If you are a theater lover you won’t want to miss this amazing show. Chicago is the closest it will get to most of us in the Midwest until it opens in St. Louis late in 2011. And while it shows every sign of a good long life in Chicago you may want to see it early so you can see it again and again. After all, there are four Billys and two Michaels that you’ve just got to see before it ends. In addition to J.P Viernes, the rest of the Billys include Tommy Batchelor (another Broadway transplant), Giuseppe Bausilio and Cesar Corrales. Keean Johnson and Gabriel Rush alternate as Michael. Billy Elliot is at the Oriental Theatre. Tickets are available from Ticketmaster

Billy's Under Theatre Lights 

MICHAEL L HARRIS is a freelance writer and Independent filmmaker. His short-film trilogy “Samuel – A Journey of Discovery” will be showing at film festivals around the country this summer. Michael makes his home in Northern Indiana. Comments and inquiries may be directed to

All photos courtesy of Joan Marcus

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REVIEW: Billy Elliot (Broadway in Chicago)

‘Billy Elliot’ shines


Emily Skinner, Cesar Corrales and Cast

Broadway in Chicago presents
Billy Elliot: The Musical
Book and lyrics by Lee Hall, music by Elton John
Directed by Stephen Daldry
At the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre
Open run (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

After four Laurence Olivier Awards, ten Tony Awards and ten Drama Desk Awards, you don’t need me to tell you that Billy Elliot: The Musical is worth seeing. Time Magazine also named it the "Best musical of the decade," an assessment I Tommy Batchelor as Billydon’t agree with —  my vote goes to Urinetown — but I will say Billy Elliot has everything a good musical ought to have: Fine music, outstanding choreography and a heartwarming, if clichéd, story full of triumphs and pathos.

Having opened in London in 2005 and on Broadway in 2008, the acclaimed musical has finally come to Chicago, where a stellar cast does it full justice.

Based on Lee Hall’s screenplay for the 2000 film, the plot is one we’ve seen many times before — a talented youth, dancing to his own drummer, beats the odds and makes doubters accept him on his own terms.

In this case, it’s 11-year-old Billy Elliot, son of a British miner, amid the devastating 1984 Coal War in which labor lost its fight against Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government, destroying the miners’ union and all but ending coal mining in the U.K. Billy’s mother is dead; his grandmother is senile; his dad and older brother, Tony, are on strike, along with most of the men in their town; money is short and tempers are flaring. Sent to boxing class, Billy accidentally stumbles into a girls’ ballet lesson and discovers a love and talent for dancing — outraging the men in his life.

It’s a rollercoaster of a story, full of contrasts, at turns funny and sad, raucous and refined, exultant and despondent. Politics, class consciousness, the role of the arts vs. sports, sexual identity all come together, sometimes clashingly. If the bitter defeat of the strike seems an odd match for the bright jubilation of Billy’s triumph, well … it’s a musical.

Peter Darling’s dazzling choreography makes the most of the juxtapositions, as in the brilliantly effective sequences of warring police and angry strikers interspersed with little girls in tutus.

Giuseppe Bausilio and Samuel Pergande J.P. Viernes as Billy
Tommy Batchelor and Ballet Girls Miners Association

Performed by a first-rate orchestra, led by Colin Welford, Elton John’s score, with lyrics by Hall, also brings us some startling contrasts. It runs the gamut from cheerful music-hall ditties to rousing anthems to sad ballads, from joyous to silly to angry, sometimes even in the same song. In an excellent example, one of the few solos, "We’d Go Dancing," Billy’s grandmother — a splendid performance by Cynthia Darlow — recalls her unhappy married life.

On the silly side, we get "Expressing Yourself," a strange sequence in which Billy and his transvestite friend, Michael (played alternately by Keean Johnson and Gabriel Rush), don women’s clothes and then dance with giant headless dresses.

Then there’s the pure joy of "Electricity," Billy’s paean to dancing.

A rotating cast of four boys plays Billy. On opening night, 13-year-old Cesar Corrales showed dazzling talent as a dancer and actor. A breathtaking pas de deux with his older self (onetime Joffrey dancer Samuel Pergande) deservedly drew a standing ovation on opening night.

We also see excellent moves from Emily Skinner as Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy’s pushy ballet teacher, and Blake Hammond as Mr. Braithwaite, her grotty accompanist.

No one in this ensemble puts a foot wrong.

Rating: ★★★½

This musical contains adult language some parents may consider unsuitable for children.

Billy's Under Theatre Lights



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Billy Elliot announces entire Chicago cast, including 4th Billy

“Billy Elliot” announced Chicago cast


Including J.P. Viernes as Chicago’s 4th Billy


Universal Pictures Stage Productions, Working Title Films and Old Vic Productions in association with Weinstein Live Entertainment, has announced, with Broadway In Chicago, casting for the Chicago production of Billy Elliot the Musical, previews beginning March 18th at the Oriental Theatre; opening night being Sunday, April 11th. The cast includes John Peter (J.P.) Viernes who joins the previously announced actors Tommy Batchelor, Giuseppe Bausilio and Cesar Corrales in the role of ‘Billy’.

Below: 3 of the 4 Billy’s

Cloud Gate

Starring in Billy Elliot are Armand Schultz (Dad); Cynthia Darlow (Grandma); Patrick Mulvey (Tony); Keean Johnson and Gabriel Rush (Michael); Chicagoan Samuel Pergande (Billy’s Older Self); Jim Ortlieb (George); Chicagoan Susie McMonagle (Mum); Chicagoan Blake Hammond (Mr. Braithwaite); and Maria Connelly (Debbie).

Also featured are Matt Allen; Jason Babinsky; Chicagoan Elijah Barker; Madison Barnes; Cindy Benson; Sara Brians; Chicagoan Tony Clarno; Abby Church; Christine DeFillipo; Alexandra Dell’Edera; Faith Fetscher; Susan Haefner; Ryan Kasprzak; Chicagoan Kayla King; Kent Lewis; Will Mann; Kate Marilley; Spencer Milford; Brittany Nicholas; Chicagoan Mark Page; Mitch Poulos; Emily Richardson; Annelise Ritacca; Michaeljon Slinger; Jaclyn Taylor Ruggiero; Jamie Torcellini; Nicholas Torres; Brionna Trilling; and Kayla Vanderbilt. Additional casting will be announced at a later date.

About “Billy Elliot”

Stage DoorBilly Elliot is the funny, heartwarming tale of a young boy with a dream, and a celebration of his triumph against the odds. Set against the historic British miners’ strike of the 1980s, the story follows Billy’s journey as a boy in a small mining town who, after stumbling across a ballet class while on his way to a boxing lesson, realizes that his future lay not in the boxing ring but on stage as a dancer.

Featuring music by Elton John, book and lyrics by Lee Hall, choreographed by Peter Darling and directed by Stephen Daldry, Billy Elliot opened at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre on November 13, 2008 and was the winner of ten 2009 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

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