Two young dynamos fill the big dancing shoes of musical’s title role
By Randall King
Winnipeg Free Press
January 13, 2015
[Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada] – When it comes to placing Billy Elliot the Musical in its proper context within the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s 2015-16 schedule, RMTC artistic director Steven Schipper doesn’t hesitate to describe it as their tent-pole show of the season.
Indeed, it comes to the Winnipeg stage bearing the laurels of a monster musical hit since it premièred on the London stage in 2005, featuring music by Elton John and book and lyrics by Lee Hall (who scripted the 2000 film on which the play was based). After opening on Broadway in 2008, it went on to be nominated for 15 Tony Awards, winning 10, including best musical.
In short, Billy Elliot is a big deal. It’s somehow all the more exciting that the success of the Winnipeg iteration of the musical rests on the shoulders of a couple of Ontario kids who have yet to blow out 16 candles.
Eamon Stocks, who just turned 15, hails from Whitby. Ethan Ribeiro, 14, comes from Kitchener. On alternating days, they’ll take turns playing the demanding role of Billy, a motherless 12-year-old being raised in the tough environs of a North East England mining community during the miners strike of 1984-85. Compounding Billy’s challenges, he nurtures a passion for dance when his dad would rather he took up the more macho activity of boxing.
It is an understatement to say the role requires much of its performers, even beyond the triple-threat requirements of singing, dancing and acting.
“In terms of the Billys, we were fortunate to find two,” says Schipper, who also directs this production. “Because there weren’t three.
“We saw a little over a dozen young men from all across the country. In the end, they were the only two who could do it.”
Of course, they’re also different. They even sing in different keys.
“They bring different strengths and they bring slightly different interpretations, only because they’re using their own humanity,” Schipper says. “They process the story of the play using their own emotions. But they’re both on the same beats in every moment that the story requires and their fellow actors require,” he says. “So everyone in the company is still getting what they need from Billy. I have no qualms about which night our audience sees. They’re both excellent.”
They are also both highly committed actors who have been preparing for their performances in rehearsal spaces at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet since Sept. 10.
Eamon, who has been studying singing, dancing and acting since he was six, has had his eye on the role of Billy since the show hit Toronto in 2011. “Obviously, I was a bit too young for it then,” he says. “But it was a fantastic experience auditioning, and then after, I saw the show and it was absolutely fantastic and it inspired me so much to continue my training in dance. And when I got the opportunity to audition for this huge role that I’d been longing to do since I was 10, I jumped on it immediately.”
Ethan came to the role as a trained dancer, but needed to catch up in the singing and acting, a challenge he has embraced. “It’s a lot different than what I’m used to, which is just straight dancing,” he says. “It’s meant really long days. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing, because I can see that I’m getting better. And I’m growing by doing this.”
“The most challenging thing about this is building up stamina,” says Eamon. “The whole show is about two hours and 15 minutes and in that run time, we have seven dance numbers, some of which are back to back.
“The biggest for Billy is Electricity, this huge song in the second act, where he has to go from singing to 2 1/2 minutes of intense ballet, back to singing, and then doing some more dancing again.
“So it’s not just stamina for dancing, it’s also finding those breaths to continue singing,” Eamon says. “There was many a time during training when Ethan and I, after three hours of dancing, we just threw ourselves on the floor.” He adds they’ve since built up their endurance: “We were able to make it through the show without oxygen tanks.”
Unlike the character they play, both Eamon and Ethan have had their talents nurtured by their families. But each actor can still relate to Billy’s struggle. “I think (we) are a lot alike because I moved away from home and went to a ballet school and now I’m doing this big role — and Billy does that too,” Ethan says, adding he will be returning to the RWB this summer to further his dance studies on a scholarship.
Eamon says he especially relates to the play’s message about being true to yourself. “In one of the play’s biggest songs, The Letter, Billy is reading this letter written by his dead mother and she writes: ‘In everything you do, always be yourself.’ ” Eamon says. “And when he discovered something he was really passionate about — dance — he didn’t care what anybody else thought of it. When he was dancing, there was no feeling quite like it.
“And that’s how I feel when I’m dancing,” he says. “When I’m onstage, there’s no feeling that can quite match what it’s like, dancing in front of an audience of hundreds of people.”
Copyright 2016 Winnipeg Free Press
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