Jeff Kready didn't simply jump aboard the Billy Elliot bandwagon when the smash Broadway hit started touring a couple of months ago. No, Kready was at rehearsals back in June 2008, before the show opened, starting as a member of the ensemble and taking over as Billy's older brother last May.
That's who I saw in the role last July, so I can offer a little advice to anyone who hasn't experienced Kready as Tony: buckle your seatbelts, he's a mean one.
From the day he joined the company, Kready estimates that he has worked with about a dozen Billys. Two of them were felled by injuries before another three — David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik, and Kiril Kulish — opened in the role and shared the 2009 Tony Award for Best Actor in a musical.
Kready has watched Michael Dameski, whose first Billy was down in Australia, transfer with him to the tour. Dameski is the veteran among the five touring Billys. But Kready has also gotten a kick watching another of the quintet, Kylend Hetherington, take a journey very similar to his own, beginning as Tall Boy on Broadway, going into training as Billy, and coming out on tour as Billy. Hetherington is 12 (the quints range from 12 to 15), and Kready says that the grooming process began at least two years ago.
"I remember when he came in," Kready remarks, "he was so young and this was a huge step to be playing Tall Boy. Then to go from a role that has five lines and evolve into Billy Elliot, that has been really special. And I know audiences are just going to love him."
Billy is raised by his widowed father during the harrowing Thatcher Era, in the hard-hat Brit town of Easington at the start of the grueling miner's strike of 1984. He is enticed, to his dad's utter amazement and horror, to toss aside daily boxing lessons for the chance to study dance with Mrs. Wilkinson. She spots Billy's enormous dance potential and sees his talent as a possible escape route from his dreary hometown.
This title role has become the same kind of Holy Grail for young boys in the new millennium that the role of Little Orphan Annie was for girls back in the late '70s and early '80s. Kready agrees with the comparison — up to a point.
"It's like Annie on steroids!" Kready jokes. "They have to perform Hamlet while singing and dancing for nearly three hours. There is a lot of ballet, but it's also tap, it's also jazz, it's also acro[batics]. So not only do they have to be tremendously accomplished dancers, but on top of that, they have to be able to act, and they have to be able to sing. So I don't know that we've ever seen a child's role that demands such a balance of triple threat qualities."
Each of the Billys comes to the show with different strengths, so when each of the five rotating stars gets to his climactic audition for the Royal Ballet, the choreography of "Electricity" is tailor-made. Lex Ishimoto will dazzle with his street moves, while Dameski brings a special gymnastics background to his Billy.
"He does a lot more flippy tricks."
The role has already had a profound impact on Billy's homeland. Kready recites the facts:
"The Royal Ballet in England said that after the Billy Elliot movie came out and became so popular and then became a musical, their enrollment for boys more than quadrupled. Now their enrollment for boys is more than their enrollment for girls, and they attribute that solely to Billy Elliot."
Kready is not in the least tired of the role or the show, partially because of the variety that the different Billys bring with them each night. Incredibly, he doesn't mind being asked whether tonight's show featured the best Billy.
"That's always a favorite thing for me to answer," he confides, "because I could always say yes. Anybody who comes is going to see the best Billy, because they are all unique and they do bring different things to the table. No matter who you see in the lead role, you'll see something amazing."