Two boys from the Corridor had already been tapped to play Billy Elliot — Iowa City natives Alex Ko on Broadway in 2009 and Marcus Pei in Chicago in 2010 and Toronto in 2011. Could another local boy with elite dance artistry be waiting in the wings?
Theatre Cedar Rapids was hoping so, and a serendipitous encounter over sandbags last September brought Jesse Flaherty of Fairfax to auditions in mid-March. Now 11, he’s starring in the title role in the musical journey about a young boy who meets resistance when he trades boxing for ballet.
The show opens June 30 and continues through July 22 on the TCR main stage.
Director Angie Toomsen was helping place sandbags to hold back Cedar River floodwaters when during a conversation, a woman working next to her recommended Flaherty.
“She said, ‘I know this kid and he hasn’t really acted before and I don’t think he sings, but he is Billy Elliot,’” Toomsen noted. So she reached out to his mother.
“That didn’t mean he was already precast,” Toomsen said. “He still came and auditioned, and it was pretty clear at the audition that she was right.”
And the production team breathed a sigh of relief.
“The thing is, he has to do all these things, but if he can’t make you believe with dance, the show doesn’t work. And so that is a risk in putting a show like this on this season, without knowing for sure that there’s a pool of people who would be able to pull it off,” Toomsen said. “So we feel very fortunate.”
This is Flaherty’s first play, and that doesn’t faze him.
“I wanted to act and dance but I was a little on the edge about singing,” he said. “But now I’m comfortable with it.”
“Might as well start big,” Toomsen quipped.
He’s entering his fifth year studying at The Dancer’s Edge in Hiawatha, and while he doesn’t work on his “Billy Elliot” moves there, he definitely sees crossover.
“I get tap and ballet lessons there, and the stuff that’s in the show and the stuff we practice there are similar, so I can apply here what I do at the studio,” he said.
His intelligence and dedication make him a dream for choreographer Aaron Canterbury.
“Jesse has this incredible memory, making it possible for him to learn and retain a large amount of material in such a short amount of time,” Canterbury said. “His strength resides in his passion for dance.
“It’s one thing to be a strong technical dancer and another thing to be a passionate dancer. When you can find someone that has both attributes, then you know you’ve found something special,” he said. “I’ve been truly humbled to have the chance to choreograph such a sweet and talented kid.”
Flaherty also is getting the hang of the singing. Repetition is the key, said musical director Benjamin Schmidt, adding that everything Flaherty needed was “inside his head,” and his voice is “perfect” for the vocal range.
Music is by Elton John, so Schmidt said it’s “a little bit of everything” and “very piano-driven,” full of rock and jazz.
It also runs the gamut of emotions, moving forward a story set against the 1984 miners’ strike in northern England, punctuated by fights between the miners and police. Billy’s widowed father and older brother are miners, so they’re caught up in the fray.
Additional layers deal with grief and his father’s umbrage at having a son who would rather pull on dance shoes than lace up boxing gloves — as well as Billy’s need to be true to himself and his best friend, Michael, who has no hesitation about walking down the street in a tutu.
Gus Ewell, 13, of Iowa City, is relishing his role as Michael.
“He is a very fun character,” he said. “He teaches Billy how to express himself and he tells him that he should dance because that’s what he wants to do — and that’s what he should do.”
For that reason, both boys especially enjoy the song “Expressing Yourself.”
“The last line is, ‘What we need is individuality,’ which is really one of the core themes of the show,” Toomsen said. “Billy’s in this world where everybody’s on a path to become the same thing, and he’s doing something that is not only very different but it feels even frivolous, because (the others) are fighting for their lives. And then additionally there’s this whole taboo attached to boys who dance.”
It’s a meaty role for Tad Paulson, 46, of Iowa City, who plays Billy’s father.
“I think he comes to realize that dancing is actually going to be his own redemption — that helping Billy recognize his potential and his dream is going to fill the hole that he has in his soul,” he said. “And that’s a very powerful moment for him, when he realizes Billy comes before everything else, including the strike and all his other problems.”
Toomsen said: “Some people might not realize that this isn’t just a show about a boy who learns to dance. It’s also a show about these people who are fighting for their lives and there are a lot of themes that are powerful... It’s a very multilayered show that will appeal to a lot of people, not just dance lovers.”
WHAT: “Billy Elliot the Musical”
WHERE: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
WHEN: June 30 to July 22; 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
TICKETS: $29 to $38, TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org