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Lauded pint-sized dancer lands lead role in Broadway sensation

By Stacy Trevenon
Half Moon Bay Review
December 30, 2009


J.P. Viernes’ sparkle-eyed smile and electrifying moves have lit up productions with the Shely Pack Dancers and Coastal Repertory Theatre, Dance Masters of America competitions. He has leaped his way to national titles.

Where does he go from there?  To Chicago, to play the title role in a touring production of the new Broadway sensation “Billy Elliot the Musical.”

“I’m really excited, that’s for sure,” said Viernes, 13. With his age, petite build, unchanged voice and dance chops, he seems born for the role. He is one of four boys to rotate the role of Billy, which he will do at Chicago’s Ford Center/Oriental Theatre from the show’s mid-April opening until September 2010. “I’m kinda nervous — No, not really. It’s just a big thing.”

“I’m so proud of him, so excited after seeing how hard he works,” said Viernes’ mother, Resina. “It’s an opportunity for J.P., a once-in-a-lifetime. You never know where it will lead.”

Billy, the son of a North England miner, stumbles on ballet while on his way to a boxing class, falls in love with the art and must persuade his reticent father to allow him to pursue that love.

Based on an international hit film, written by Lee Hall with rocker Elton John contributing what the New York Post calls “his best score yet,” the musical took 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

“I’ll be in it as long as my voice doesn’t change, or I don’t grow,” said Viernes, whom local theatergoers might recall from Coastal Rep’s 2005 production of “South Pacific.”

He learned of auditions for Billy from dance teacher Shely Pack-Manning. Her studio, like many around the country, had posted fliers from “Billy Elliot” producers, seeking boys under five feet tall, age 9 to 12, who could dance.

Calling Viernes “always a joy to work with,” Pack-Manning said, “I find him to be sensitive, which is helping him.”

She worked with him on how to fit memories of disagreements with schoolmates into onstage moments such as when Billy clashes with peers. She also talked to him about how to prevent injuries while dancing on the “raked” stage, which gradually rises in level.

Viernes had studied with Pack since age 7, inspired by older sister Lexi (herself an accomplished dancer and Dance Masters title holder.) She had auditioned for the “Billy Elliot” ensemble. Now, Viernes says, “she’s really proud of me. She’s like, ‘I support you!’”

 He studied ballet and tap, a little jazz and gymnastics, and can name Junior Mr. Dance of America 2009 with Dance Masters of America as his most recent title.

His training did not hint at the maze of auditions to come. The first hurdle was a March, 2007 audition in San Francisco. That resulted in a callback, in which Viernes found himself one of 45 boys vying for the part. That May, he and his mother were called to Los Angeles for a second audition. 

Then came months of waiting, with no word. Parents Resina and Alex didn’t think he’d gotten in. “We thought, if he got in, that’s fortunate, but we could see a lot of New York people, stage moms, bringing their kids every day (to try out for every available role on Broadway,)” said Resina Viernes. “We don’t do that.”

The family finally got a call in October 2008 from “Billy Elliot” producers offering to bring them to New York for the next step in the process. That was followed by another audition in April 2009. At that point, Viernes, now under serious consideration, was invited to the informal-sounding but serious “Billy camp” for classes in the show’s choreography and dance styles.

“It was kind of shocking,” said Resina Viernes. “In New York City you see all of them, lining up. You see tons of boys and girls auditioning.”

Viernes was selected in early August, though an official announcement only went out recently. Then the hard work began: five weeks’ rehearsal in New York beginning in mid-November, home for Christmas in Half Moon Bay and then back Dec. 27 for rehearsal.

This show will run simultaneously with the “Billy Elliot” production at the Imperial Theatre in New York. Viernes will play Billy in two shows per week.

When not playing Billy, he’ll be a standby and understudy. Besides Billy’s dances, songs, blocking and lines (in the north-England “Geordie” accent,) Viernes is contracted to understudy the roles of Tall Boy and Posh Boy.

His day begins with academic tutoring from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., lunch and four to five hours’ rehearsal with dialect coaching.

“As long as he gets a good night’s sleep so he doesn’t get too tired. And he’s got the encouragement of his mom and family and friends,” said his mother. “He’s also having fun with all the other Billys.”

But except for leaps and twirls as Billy, Viernes, who’s considering a career in science, keeps his feet on the ground.

“I still feel like myself,” he said with his trademark sweet grin. “Just hard-working J.P.”


Copyright © 2010 Half Moon Bay Review

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