There’s a New Billy Elliot in Town

Written by Jade Shojaee

When asked to direct Billy Elliot at Contra Costa Musical Theatre (CCMT) a reluctant Jennifer Perry had to ask herself if this was something she was emotionally ready to take on. “I love the story so much I wanted to make sure I could do it the way I wanted to do it,” she told me over the phone. “It has so much meaning to me, obviously because of the ballet aspect of it, but also because of the relationships. The teacher’s relationship to the students and the grandmother’s relationship to Billy. I’ve experienced those relationships and they’re so close to my heart. I had to ask myself, am I ready to tap into all that?”

Set in north-eastern England during the 1984–85 coal miners’ strike, the story follows the struggles and triumphs of a boy whose life is forever changed when he stumbles upon a ballet class during his weekly boxing lesson. Despite dark times and darker stereotypes for male dancers, “this little bright light (Billy Elliot) rose amidst the dark.”

Dance is an heirloom of sorts for Jenny, who inherited the Lareen Fender Ballet School on Main Street from her grandmother six years ago. A dance instructor and mentor, Jenny strives to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps by creating a warm and welcoming environment for the hundreds of would-be dancers who fill the studio each and every day.

According to Jenny, Lareen was well known for her ability to train male dancers because of her athletic approach to dancing. “She loves this musical,” Jenny said. “When she was in her last few weeks of life, my family and I would put the song Electricity on her iPad and though she could not really speak, she could hear, and tears would stream down her face. I think being a teacher and dancer herself, that song just touched her to the core.”

That being said, Jenny insists that even audiences who have never danced a day in their lives will relate to this story.

“They’re going to learn things about themselves and their own lives because whether you played sports or danced, whatever you put your efforts toward as a youngster, you’re going to know what it feels like in that competitive world. You’re also going to know what it feels like to want something so badly. We all have experienced that.”

Jenny sure did when she met Virginia-based Braden King for the very first time. After searching the country for the right fit, Jenny recalled the moment Billy Elliott producer and CCMT board member Wendy Wilcox discovered the star to be. “I instantly loved him.” she said.

“I called an old friend of mine, Tom McCoy of McCoy Rigby Entertainment in La Mirada (Cathy Rigby and Tom McCoy’s company) and he gave me the name of someone whose son had played the role in the National touring company,” said Wilcox. “I contacted her in New York and that just opened up a whole new world. She helped us get agent submissions, word of mouth submissions, and theatre sites started posting the auditions for us. I went through tons of submissions and we found Braden, and I said that’s the kid.”

“We could never have done it without DRAA,” Jenny told me. “I called Peggy White (Executive Director of DRAA) and told her we would need DRAA’s support to get him, and Peggy did not hesitate. Peggy and the DRAA Board of Directors were completely on board. They knew that this really great show could be off-the-charts fantastic with the right kid to fill that role.”

And so he did, arriving to the rehearsal studio with his ballet shoes in one hand and star quality in the other. “It felt like Christmas morning,” Jenny said. “He IS Billy Elliot. He has such a good heart and of course he’s an amazing dancer, but he’s also a really good actor. Everybody is going to fall in love with him and his story.”

“The more kids that can see this show the better,” said Wilcox. “It’s such a beautiful sweet story about being inclusive and not judging and just letting people be themselves.”

Billy Elliot opens on Friday, October 13 at the Lesher Center for the Arts.

“It’s been an incredible experience putting this show together,” said Jenny. “I feel my grandmother (Lareen) with me everyday. I know she has been with me through this whole creative process. In fact, I know she will be beside me opening night.”

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