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(L to R) Myles Erlick, 12; JP Viernes, 14; Cesar Corrales, 14; and Marcus Pei, 12 at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
(L to R) Myles Erlick, 12; JP Viernes, 14; Cesar Corrales, 14; and Marcus Pei, 12 at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Theatre

The challenge of being Billy Elliot Add to ...

In a large studio space filled with production assistants, stage managers, dance instructors, squawking walkie-talkies (and, yes, parents), the four boys who play Billy Elliot in the Toronto production of the hit musical are taking a well deserved break to eat a lunch of turkey sandwiches and potato chips.

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A typical day for these young men - J.P. Viernes, 14; Myles Erlick, 12; Cesar Corrales, 14; and Marcus Pei, 12 - begins at 9 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m., six days a week. The hours are spent in ballet class, tap class, classes to polish their acro (a style of dance that mixes classical and acrobatic elements), rehearsing scenes and, of course, homework.

It's no wonder then, that they all agree keeping up their energy is the most difficult part of preparing for the show.

"The hardest thing is the stamina," Corrales says.

Playing the role of Billy Elliot is a monumental challenge. While the boys have years of ballet experience - they beat out 1,500 other wannabes for performances in Toronto as well as Chicago - most have had to learn to sing, to act and to become proficient tap dancers.

"They're extraordinary kids. They have to be able to absolutely stay focused, stay fit, stay mentally healthy, act, dance, sing and carry a big show on their shoulders," says producer David Furnish, whose husband Elton John adapted the film about a British boy who discovers a love of dance with Lee Hall (who wrote the script for the movie). "It's a tough job. And that's a challenge. It's not like you can go out and find these kids and they just exist. They don't. You have to bring them up a big learning curve."

After Pei passed his first two auditions, he was put in tap classes to help round out his skills for the show. Corrales also had to polish his tap, although he almost didn't try out for the role.

His mother had seen a notice for the auditions and suggested he try out. "I was like, 'I don't know mom, they do everything and I only know ballet and acro.'" But he decided to go ahead after his mom suggested he go just for the experience, even if the demands of the part seemed daunting.

All the boys recognize that Billy is the role of a lifetime.

"I've always wanted to become a professional ballet dancer. I always want to perform for people," Erlick says.

Viernes, who started to take ballet when he was seven years old after watching his older sister's recitals, auditioned for Billy for the chance to try something new.

"I like the role of Billy Elliot because, first of all, it's a very good role to dance. It's also kind of a new role for me because I haven't had much acting experience," he says.

Stephen Daldry, who directed the film (made in 2000) as well as the musical, says playing Billy in the stage version is a much, much more difficult task than the movie.

"Some kids have been in training for it for over a year," he says.

So what makes a Billy? A certain amount of charm is required, as is dance ability, of course. But there is one thing above all that makes a kid right for the part, Daldry says.

"At the end of the day, what you're looking for more than anything else is determination and tenacity," he says.

Thankfully, he adds, the show has been able to draw on students at the National Ballet of Canada, many of whom have performed in the show over the years in its various incarnations.

"The Canadian National Ballet school has been an enormous resource for us," Daldry says.

Three of the Billys in the Toronto production - Pei, Erlick and Corrales - are students at the school.

"Canada has a great bed of talent," Furnish says.

After the musical's initial success in London in 2005, Furnish hoped it would next make its way to Toronto (his home town). But the play wound up in Sydney for "logistical reasons."

Now that it is here, the Billys who go to school in the city have that much more energy for the show.

"I'm excited to be in Toronto because now my friends will be able to see the show," Erlick says.

For now, though, lunch is over and it's time for the boys to head back to their afternoon classes.

They don't mind. Their hard work is part of what this show's about.

"I think we all need to believe in hope," says Furnish, "that if we have dreams and if we have ambitions and if we have skills and talents - that if you really put your heart into something and you work at it hard enough - that you can make your dreams come true."

Follow on Twitter: @Dave_McGinn

 

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