Q&A: ‘Billy Elliot’ tap dances into Signature with dual child stars

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Billy Elliot' at Signature Theatre (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Three Oscar nominations, 10 Tony Awards and one unforgettable story.

The acclaimed musical “Billy Elliot” dances its way into Signature Theatre, now through Jan. 6.

“Even Stephen Daldry and the original creators of the film say they prefer the musical because they were able to tell the story they always wanted,” director Matthew Gardiner told WTOP. “The film really focuses just on Billy; the musical focuses on the community around him.”

Adapted by Lee Hall from his own movie screenplay, the show follows 11-year-old Billy Elliot, who lives in England, where his father and brothers are caught in the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. When Billy falls in love with ballet, he brings the town together through the power of dance.

“If you can find a role more difficult than Billy Elliot, you’ll have to point it out to me because I don’t know what it is,” Gardiner said. “These kids have to act, sing, dance, tap dance, ballet, jazz — they have to fly, they have to tumble. It’s out of control what these kids have to do.”

Indeed, the role is so demanding that they had to cast two child actors to split the duties.

“We had auditions in New York City and had a casting director who sought out people from all over the country,” Gardiner said. “These two young gentlemen ended up being the final two. I hadn’t even looked at their resume and ultimately found out that one of them lives in Alexandria, Virginia. There was no intention necessarily to cast somebody from here.”

That talented local boy is 11-year-old Owen Tabaka.

“My sister used to dance when she was young,” Tabaka said. “As she grew up, I used to go to dance with her, and I loved to run around the studio and just be a little kid. My mom said, ‘Oh, well, maybe he can dance!’ So that’s when I really started going into dance. And for acting, I saw my first Broadway show ‘The Lion King’ and loved it and said, ‘I have to do this.'”

He splits the role with 12-year-old Liam Redford, of New Jersey.

“I actually started out with gymnastics and cheer,” Radford said. “My mom was a dancer, and she led me into that world. I started out with hip-hop and absolutely hated it, so I started the next year with more classical styles, like ballet, tap and jazz, and I just fell in love with it.”

Both young performers remember sheer excitement when they got the good news.

“I came back from the pool,” Tabaka said. “I come down and, all of a sudden, there’s this cake that says, ‘Congratulations, Billy.’ I’m like, ‘Who’s Billy?’ They’re like, ‘You!’ I’m silent and frozen, almost in tears, I was so happy. I was just like in shock. I didn’t even say anything.”

“I was at a ballet summer intensive on my phone at lunch break and I got an email,” Radford said. “I wanted to scream, but I had to keep calm. I was so excited. I almost peed myself.”

Gardiner himself relates, having been the only boy in an all-girls ballet class from ages 8-16.

“When I was 6, 7, 8, all I would do is dance around the house and started telling my mom I wanted to take ballet classes,” Gardiner said. “I have amazing parents, and even though my mother is a big jock and played lots of sports … she said, ‘If we’re going to do this, you’re going to go to the best ballet school in the city,’ which was The Washington Ballet.”

These themes of creative expression play out in the songbook by Lee Hall and Elton John.

“My favorite number is ‘Born to Boogie,'” Radford said. “It takes place with Billy in ballet class. … It’s just a really fun, jazzy number, and we use hula hoops in this production.”

“My favorite number in the show is ‘Solidarity,'” Tabaka said. “It’s not just showing what’s going on inside of Billy’s life, it’s also showing what’s going on outside of Billy’s life.”

Both agree that the most challenging number is the tap-heavy “Angry Dance.”

“It’s really hard to get all the steps,” Tabaka said. “We’re screaming throughout the number.”

“Tap is my hardest style of dance,” Radford said. “I’m more classically trained, so I had to learn and it was hard for me to pick that up, but it was really fun. … You just let everything go.”

The numbers unfold against a cinematic backdrop by set designer Jason Sherwood.

“If you’ve seen the movie, the iconic green and blue wallpaper that Billy is jumping in front of is something that the set designer blew up,” Gardiner said. “The wall opens up and it’s Billy’s bedroom. Another part of the wall opens up, and it’s the kitchen. Another wall opens up, and it’s the gym. … It’s so cinematic and we have to go to so many places, so I thought it was a really clever, elegant, intelligent way … to take something that iconic and explode it out.”

So far in the show’s first few weeks, audiences have been leaping to their feet.

“It’s been full standing ovations,” Gardiner said. “They just leap to their feet for these two boys. People love it. I think we are aching for stories right now that celebrate community and celebrate the individuality in all of us. I think this story is really uplifting and special.”

Find out more on the theater website. Hear our full chat with Gardiner, Tabaka and Radford below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with the 'Billy Elliot' cast (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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