Stafford Arima knew finding the best kid to play lead role in Theatre Calgary’s production of Billy Elliot, The Musical wasn’t going to be easy.
After all, he needed someone who could not only act; the right “Billy” would also need to know how to sing and dance. He also had to be around a certain age.
“It’s not just a triple threat; we’re looking at a quadruple threat,” said Arima of the skills the perfect actor would need to possess.
Close to a 15 kids showed up to the open auditions, hoping to win the role of Billy Elliot, the young boy who defies expectations and social norms to pursue his love of ballet.
“I felt like… you are Billy Elliots,” said Arima, recalling how he felt when he saw how many young performers had turned up for the audition.
“Everyone in this room is a Billy Elliot because… still to this day, boys or young men being in ballet is not the common thing.”
“Here in Calgary, where a lot of the youngins that are growing up are going to be hockey players, but to see this young group of young gentlemen who really have been focusing their time at this young age in the world of ballet, it really… warmed my heart,” said Arima
In the end, the head of Theatre Calgary chose not one, but two Billy Elliots.
Fourteen-year-old Rhett Udsen and 10-year-old Dex Drewitz blew Arima away with their ability to capture “the essence of Billy Elliot.”
“What they both brought in the audition was a very unique and individual understanding of what it means to be a young person with a dream.”
Physically, the two are about as far apart as you’d expect a 10- and a 14-year-old to be but it’s that shared understanding of what Billy must endure to realize his dream that helped them win the role.
“I’ve been dancing for a long time,” said Udsen. “And there has been ridicule in my life before for dancing so… it’s been very nice.
“It feels like…a part that’s very close to my heart.”
“The story of Billy Elliot is about following that instinct inside of you and making it happen,” explained Arima of his choice. “And you could see that in Rhett, you could feel that in his energy as he was auditioning and Dex, the exact same.”
The duo also share a certain fortitude required to handle the rigorous and demanding schedule a production of this magnitude entails.
“Everyday in rehearsal it’s amazing watching them work with (choreographer) Yukichi Hattori and how they keep pushing themselves further and further and further,” Arima said.
Rehearsals run eight hours per day, six days per week for four full weeks. It’s a lot for an actor of any age but the two young Billys push each other.
“We’re pretty competitive with each other,” said Drewitz.
“We try to keep each other on our toes,” added Udsen, with a smile.
There is no word on which actor will be appearing on stage opening night. Regardless, each will have plenty of time in the spotlight when Billy Elliot, The Musical opens at the Max Bell Theatre April 12.
“Basically, they’re on stage 97 per cent of the time,” said Arima.
Ticket information and show times for Billy Elliot, The Musical can be found on Theatre Calgary’s website.