When the curtain opens at the Tarrytown Music Hall at 1 p.m. tomorrow, Max Levy will do something that nobody thought he’d be able to do just a few weeks ago: He’ll play The Beast in Random Farms Kids’ Theater’s production of “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.”
When he was cast last June, few doubted that Max, an eighth-grader at H.C. Crittenden Middle School in Armonk, could handle the role. He had convinced producer Anya Wallach and director Marc Tumminelli he could act, sing and move.
But when he showed up for the first rehearsal on Jan. 4, Max was in a wheelchair.
The Pleasantville 13-year-old had been laid low by complications from a summer-time bout with H1N1 influenza.
He contracted the flu at summer camp in Maine. He got word that he was cast as The Beast while he was in the camp’s infirmary where, to break up the monotony, Max would read the script aloud over and over, at the request of his fellow infirmary mates.
After the influenza, there was pneumonia that forced him to miss the start of the school year. He soon began to lose feeling in his toes, then his calves and knees and soon thereafter, his thighs. He grew increasingly weak and was in considerable pain.
The summer and fall were a blur of debilitating migraines, doctor visits and tests, including a spinal tap, three MRIs, and a test called an EMG, in which needles are inserted into muscles to detect electrical impulses and diagnose muscle weakness.
Unable to navigate stairs without getting dizzy and unable to stand without extreme headaches, Max swapped his upstairs bedroom for his parents’ ground-floor room. He worked to keep up with his studies, but weakened easily.
All the while, he had his mind on Jan. 4, 2010, the start of rehearsals for “Beauty and the Beast.”
He did physical therapy with Yossi Taubenfeld at White Plains Hospital, who helped Max deal with the physical challenges, but also the emotional turmoil he was experiencing. When you’re an active 13-year-old, a highly rated tennis player, and you lose the use of your legs, it takes an emotional toll.
Eventually, after diagnoses, tests and more diagnoses, Max came to the attention of Dr. David Younger, chief of neuromuscular diseases at NYU Langone Medical Center.
The doctor, who lives in Scarsdale, looked at the tests and ordered a few more. He came to the diagnosis of peripheral neuropathy and dysautonomia. Max’s nerves, weakened by the original infection, were under seige.
Younger put Max on intravenous gamma globulin, which allowed his body to begin to repairing itself.
Still, on Jan. 4, there Max was in that wheelchair, one of 120 kids in four different casts of “Beauty and the Beast.”
Producer Wallach knew that an actor in a wheelchair could certainly play The Beast, but if she were to go that route, she’d have to put all three of the boys who play the Beast in wheelchairs.
The set — with six stairs up from the Music Hall stage — had already been built. There was also the matter of the steps backstage that give access to the stage.
And there was the time factor.
“While we didn’t see anything wrong with having our leading man in a wheelchair, we knew we didn’t have enough time to re-block the show so that Max could move around the stage safely,” Wallach says.
All those factors meant Wallach needed a Beast who could walk. And, in the show’s climactic scene, set to the title song, the Beast would have to waltz.
“I felt like everything in my life was taken away from me due to this illness,” Max says. “I couldn’t stand losing one more thing, especially since I had been looking forward to playing the Beast since before the summer.”
“I was very emotional, and not very happy,” Max recalls. “I asked Anya ‘How long are you going to give me to walk?’”
Wallach looked at the schedule and told Max that they’d need to make a decision — if he could play the part or have another actor go on for him — by Jan. 18.
Max had two weeks to get out of the wheelchair, walk and, eventually, waltz.
With the help of medication, physical therapy and a looming deadline he wanted to meet, Max made changes.
“The next two rehearsals, I showed up with a walker,” he says. “Then on crutches. Every single day?that I was walking, the next day got easier.”
All the while, he was watching rehearsals, watching scenes being staged, watching other actors do what he couldn’t yet do:?move effortlessly around the stage.
Max’s parents drove him to the JCC at Mid-Westchester in Scarsdale, where he trained in the pool to build up the strength in his legs.
Eventually, he was able to stand on the stage and rehearse.
“At one rehearsal, I remember, I started crying,”?he says, his voice catching at the memory, “because I was thinking I’d never be able to do this.”
Sarah Rossman, 13, of Harrison, who’ll be Max’s Belle, says she’s amazed by her co-star’s progress.
“I had swine flu over the summer, but I was better within a week”?she says. “We all felt terribly that he wouldn’t be able to do it. But he tried so hard. He was always watching and learning.
“You see a kid in a wheelchair and you think ‘It’s not going to happen,’” she says. “He’s not going to be able to waltz.”
But there he’ll be, tomorrow and Sunday at 1 p.m.
Late in the show, Max Levy and Sarah Rossman will waltz.
“I can dance better now than before I got sick,”?he says with a grin. “Because I couldn’t dance before.”
“The reason that he’s walking and dancing now is that the medicine kicked in in the nick of time,” Younger says.
The doctor says that Max’s recovery continues — he still can’t feel his toes and there are other areas that must be healed — but Younger concedes that there is such a thing as incentivization, in which the mind, setting its sights on a goal, can play a role in healing.
“The mind and the body work so closely together that you reach a threshhold where you pull it together. Knowing that he was standing out of the chair when I saw him Jan. 8 and I said to him ‘You can do it,’ I?think probably helped him pull it together. A kid sometimes can’t do that unless they’re motivated.”
But Younger knows where to place the credit, on the young actor who, this afternoon and tomorrow at about 2:30, will be taking a bow with his cast.
“He did this all on his own,” he says.
(Here’s a video of Max and Sarah, waltzing at rehearsal:)
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If you go
What: “Beauty and the Beast”
When: Max Levy performs the role of The Beast at 1 p.m. Jan. 30 and 31.
Where: Tarrytown Music Hall, 13 Main St., Tarrytown
Tickets: $18, $16 children/seniors, $14 groups of 20 or more.
(Photo by Anya Wallach; video by Peter D. Kramer)