BWW Interview: Matthew Gardiner Helps Two Billys Take Flight in Signature's BILLY ELLIOT

BWW Interview: Matthew Gardiner Helps Two Billys Take Flight in Signature's BILLY ELLIOT

Signature Theatre is no stranger to theatrical challenges. New musicals, been there, done that. Interpreting and mastering the works of Stephen Sondheim, no problem. Taking epic productions and scaling them down into an intimate setting, piece of cake. Having two child actors alternate playing the lead role in a show, now that is something new. Enter Billy Elliot and the man responsible for pulling it off, director-choreographer Matthew Gardiner.

"I dare anyone to find a show with a more complicated track than Billy Elliot. The kid never leaves the stage, has to act, dance ballet and tap, and fly. So to have two actors play the role is not only reasonable, but necessary," says Gardiner.

Billy Elliot is about a young boy who discovers his talents as a dancer after accidentally stumbling into a ballet class. Set in the heart of English coal country during the 1984 miners' strike, ballet becomes an escape for Billy who is dealing with the death of his mother and the community's economic turmoil.

"I had always written the show off as the male version of Annie, because of how they marketed the Broadway production. What I wasn't prepared for was how adult the show was, how it is a remarkable piece of theatre filled with resonant themes of community, loss, and the power of artistic expression," says Gardiner.

Key to the show's success is the role of Billy. When Billy Elliot first opened on Broadway, three actors rotated the role. While not uncommon, most musicals with vocally or physically demanding lead roles - think Eva Peron in Evita or Kim in Miss Saigon - employ an alternate actor who plays the matinees.

What is rare though is for a production to feature multiple actors sharing a role, and in Signature's case, that means two Billys. For Gardiner, that comes with the added challenge of having two young actors, each of whom bring a different perspective to an emotionally complex role.

"The only thing I can do is to encourage them to bring themselves [Liam Redford & Owen Tabaka] to the role," says Gardiner. "Before we even got into rehearsal with the full cast, I spent a week with the two of them. It was an important week in this process and they started rehearsals with the full company with a lot of the show already under their belts."

Audiences familiar with Signature Theatre know that it is not uncommon for Gardiner to wear dual hats as both a musical's director and choreographer. However, having dual actors tackle the lead role brings its own set of unique challenges.

"It is not easy, and the only way it is possible to direct and choreograph a show in three weeks is to have an amazing team - which luckily I do," says Gardiner. "I spent two weeks before rehearsals working through all the dances with our associate choreographer [Kelly Crandall d'Amboise] so that at this stage she can really take charge of cleaning these dances and I can focus on my role as the director."

The winner of 10, 2009 Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Lead Actor in a Musical for its three leads, Billy Elliot is yet another in a long line of epic musicals that have been reimagined by Signature. Over the years audiences have gone to old Hollywood with Sunset Boulevard, war torn Vietnam with Miss Saigon, and the Texas oil fields with Giant.

"The exciting part is taking a show like Billy Elliot, which is very cinematic, and figuring out how we make it work. Bringing a show down to its core is what we do great at Signature," says Gardiner.

Billy Elliot runs thru January 6th at Signature Theatre - 4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets please call (703) 820-9771 or click here.

If you want to learn more about how Liam Redford & Owen Tabaka are tackling Billy together, Signature is hosting a free conversation with both actors on December 6th. Details maybe found here.

Photo: Matthew Gardiner. Credit: Signature Theatre.

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From This Author Benjamin Tomchik

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