“Billy Elliot” — Elton John’s 10-time Tony-winner about an English miner’s son who prefers ballet to boxing — left Broadway in 2012, after 1,312 performances, and has never been performed by a high school cast.
That changes this week, when Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains becomes the first high school ever to stage the musical, which is based on Stephen Daldry’s 2000 film.
The all-boys Catholic school will present the show May 1, 2, 8, 9 and 10 in the school’s 1,032-seat Major Bowes Theater.
“It’s such a beautiful story,” director Frank Portanova says. “Not to get sappy, but it’s about the power of love and family and just the humanity of the piece is brilliant. It’ll be a great show for families to experience together.”
Stepinac is taking “Billy Elliot” a spin for Music Theater International, the group that grants performance permission for professional, amateur and school productions. It’s the same arrangement the school — and several other schools — had with Disney Theatricals for last year’s award-winning “Mary Poppins.”
This year, the “Billy Elliot” honors are Stepinac’s alone.
Sophomore Marc DeSanctis plays the title role, who isn’t a life-long dancer.
“It’s something I’ve had two months to do,” DeSanctis says with more than a hint of wonder in his voice. “I’ve had the pleasure of working with a lot of coaches and other dancers and they’ve been nothing but helpful. Their work has been invaluable and I can’t thank them enough.”
Among the input DeSanctis has received: a visit from Tony-winners David Alvarez and Trent Kowalik, two of the three original Billys, who came to a March rehearsal to reflect on their time with the musical and commiserate a bit with DeSanctis about the effort it takes to play the role.
The role is huge, with many styles of dance, all of which were new to DeSanctis. Asked which song was a favorite, the actor-singer-dancer revealed the role’s eclectic nature in his answer.
“I love ‘Angry Dance’ because I love tap. I love ‘The Dream Ballet’ because I get to fly and to dance with another friend. But ‘Electricity,’ there’s nothing else going on in the scene, so it’s all kind of me, and it’s ballet. I think it’s going to be the most rewarding.”
It’s a big stretch from his role last year, as “Valentine, the creepy doll” in “Mary Poppins.”
“I loved ‘Mary Poppins,’” he says. “I couldn’t help but smile when I did it, because it’s a really fun show. But I like ‘Billy Elliot’ a bit more because it has more movement. It’s not happiness all the time. It has great moments, but also makes you think.”
Billy’s story unfolds against a backdrop of the Northeast of England during a brutal miner’s strike against the government of Margaret Thatcher. His father’s a miner. His brother’s a miner. His mother is dead. Times are tough.
Anthony Pietroluongo, 15, a sophomore from The Bronx, plays Billy’s friend, Michael, a free spirit.
“I didn’t know much about the show, but when I watched it with Miss (Charlotte) Newman, our choreographer, I said, ‘This has to be me.’ I have such a connection to it and it’s so much fun and I love being the funny guy in the shows.”
“Billy’s passion is ballet and Michael’s just happens to be dressing up as a woman,” Pietroluongo says. “But the message is that no matter what you love, you can express it. At this school, I think it’s going to open up a lot of peoples’ eyes. At an all-boys’ school, even with a great theater program like we have, theater gets looked at as being weird.”
DeSanctis agrees about the show’s message.
“There’s a great line: ‘Always be yourself and you’ll always be true,’” he says. “That’s the go-to message.”
As Stepinac is an all-boys’ school, it draws its actresses from across the region.
Gianna Prignana, 15, a sophomore from Harrison, plays Mrs. Wilkinson, the dance teacher, leading a group of girl dancers.
“She has been doing the same thing for years and she’s tired of it,” Prignana says. “Then Billy comes along and he impacts her life a lot. You see the more motherly side of her come out.”
Mrs. Wilkinson tries to convince Billy’s dad that Billy has a special gift for ballet. Senior Jesse Hernandez, a senior from The Bronx, plays the dad.
“At the beginning, I’m a really aggressive dad, trying to understand my family and what’s going on in the world,” Hernandez says. “But I get close to my son and realize he’s a great kid and help him follow his dream.”
Stepinac senior Frank Rocco plays the Elliot man, Billy’s older brother, Tony.
Tony takes a lot longer to come around, but he, too, sees dancing as his brother’s way out of their gritty hometown.
Producer Keith Sunderland says this show has a different level of excitement for the cast, and for him and for director Frank Portanova.
“You get caught up, as any director and producer does, in putting a show on, but this one every now and then you stop and say: ‘Wow! We’re the first!’
It’s a thrill for the cast and the crew, who are in on this never-been-done-before adventure together, Sunderland added.
“When you’re the first, you want to make sure that you put the best foot forward and make it as outstanding as possible. You want to set a good example.”
MTI, the group that granted Stepinac the permission to stage “Billy,” will take what Portanova & Co. learn and prepare the musical for other high schools to follow.
Musical director Chloe Sasson has been in touch with David Chase, the show’s original muisical director, who shared a trove of information to help Stepinac’s “Billy” sound authentic. The original Broadway percussionist and trumpeter have offered tips to their Stepinac counterparts.
There are changes to the script, adapting the language to a school audience, and adjustments to the score, adapting to a school orchestra.
One thing won’t change: Billy still flies in “The Dream Ballet” and ZFX, the company that flew a practically perfect English nanny last year, will fly an English schoolboy this year.
Sunderland says this year’s flying task is a bit trickier, as it’s rigidly choreographed.
“It’s amazing how the flying has to time out to the music,” he says. “If I hear counts of eight one more time….”
“Billy Elliot,” 7:30 p.m., May 1, 2, 8, 9; 2 p.m., May 10. $22; $18 seniors and under 12. 914-946-4800, ext. 200.
Here’s the Running Lines video I shot at Stepinac. Enjoy!