Children charm Philadelphia audiences in 'King and I,' 'Billy Elliot'

Brielle Hart, 23, "child wrangler" for "The King and I," answers a question from one of her charges. Dance captain Jee Teo says the young actors are charming but fidgety - "with kids and their attention spans, it's like three, five, 10 seconds."
Brielle Hart, 23, "child wrangler" for "The King and I," answers a question from one of her charges. Dance captain Jee Teo says the young actors are charming but fidgety - "with kids and their attention spans, it's like three, five, 10 seconds." (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 16, 2011

Equipped with coffee, running shoes, a bright scarf, and endless enthusiasm for traipsing up and down flights of steps with little children in tow, Brielle Hart is organizing her tiny minions.

Hart, 23, is the child coordinator - child wrangler, in backstage lingo - for the Walnut Street Theatre's production of The King and I, and she cuts right to the chase.

"So," she calls out in a room of 22 children, ranging from 4 to 13, "can I have you guys get in your death-scene lines for me? Death-scene lines!"

And they line up, death-scene style.

Ella, Isabella, Rachael, Jessica, Aiden, and 17 others are headed to record "Getting to Know You" with show star Rachel York for the Thanksgiving Day parade.

It may seem a bit of deja vu for York, who plays Anna in the show. At this time last year she was staring out at dozens of pre-voice-changed boys rehearsing "Santa Baby" as part of the Philadelphia Boys Choir concert with the Philly Pops.

But this kind of show is a perennial favorite in musical theater for the holiday season: the crowd-pleasing show with a gaggle of awesomely cute and precocious children.

This year, in addition to the charming Rodgers and Hammerstein 1951 musical, Philadelphia is hosting the touring company of Billy Elliot, the London-originated story of a boy and ballet.

The King and I opened last week and runs through Jan. 8. Billy Elliot, at the Academy of Music, opens Wednesday and runs through Nov. 27.

Any one of the Royal Children of Siam can steal the show, as 4 1/2-year-old Isabella Le nearly did on the first night of previews. Mostly because they are so darned cute. (Ella Hampton of Cherry Hill and Isabella, of Philadelphia, were in the Walnut's Miss Saigon of last spring; Rachael Li Jordan of West Chester was their never-got-on-stage understudy. All three are royal children in The King and I.)

Billy Elliot is even more child-driven than The King and I. In Billy Elliot, the young male lead dances, sings, and acts nearly nonstop, portraying a miner's son who discovers that his heart is in ballet, not boxing.

"They're the hardest-working people in show business, I really swear," says Mary Giattino, the assistant choreographer for the  touring production coming to Philadelphia. "From the time they've gotten their job, they haven't stopped.

"There are 50 people, and this one boy is the glue and the heart and soul of a three-hour play."

For the national tour, the cast includes a stable of four Billys, all trained in Billy Camp, who perform in rotation, like a baseball team's starting pitchers.

This tour's Billys are Ty Forhan, 13, of Ontario, Canada; Kylend Hetherington, 13, of Auburn, Mich.; Lex Ishimoto, 13, of Irvine, Calif.; and J.P. Viernes, 15, of Half Moon Bay, Calif.

"Each boy does two performances a week," said Giattino. "When they're not in the show, they're training. The training is really demanding. They're in ballet class three days a week, acrobatics class once a week, one tap-dance class a week. There's vocal training and acting class. And in the meantime, there's school."

The production brings tutors for the students, each of whom travels with either a parent, relative, or hired guardian.

The Billys are all selected for their personalities and dance skills. The show figures that they can teach them the rest, such as singing or how to talk with a Geordie dialect.

"Some of these boys have never sung," Giattino said. "The singing isn't always their strength. These kids are sponges. They learn how to find the pitch. By the time they leave that rehearsal process and camp, it's pretty incredible."

For The King and I, a Philadelphia-based production, the children are divided into two casts: weekend and weekday. Twelve-year-old Conrad Sager of Phoenixville, who plays Anna's son Louis, appears in every show. The kids have to show up most days for rehearsal at 2 p.m., and drop-off resembles any theater camp or preschool. The week before previews, rehearsals lasted until 10 p.m.

The children sing (only three are miked), and a few have lines ("There's not a word of truth in it," declared Valerie West on opening night). And while the children perform a beautifully and touchingly choreographed introductory march (one by one in the original, two by two at the Walnut, to keep things moving), most of their onstage movements are a variation on the Siamese bow to the royal king. The angsty king, played by the bald Mel Sagrado Maghuyop, is slight in stature compared with Yul Brynner (and Rachel York, for that matter), but nicely nuanced.

Dance captain Jee Teo, who plays Simon of Legree and Kralahome in the production, said the children were charming but fidgety. Pressing their palms together in the Siamese symbol of showing respect has proved especially challenging.

"The show is very stylized," Teo said during a rehearsal last week. "We want to be more authentic with the culture. Especially with kids and their attention spans, it's like three, five, 10 seconds. If they're doing it for anything longer, they start twirling fingers, doing this." He scratched his nose.

They also are supposed to keep their eyes down, another tough thing for a 5-year-old on the stage.

Johanna Lackey, 8, of Haddonfield, who plays Princess Ying Yaowlak, has to work especially hard not to smile when she approaches Anna to tell her to stay in Siam. "It's hard for her not to smile," said her mother, Catherine, who has three daughters adopted from China in the show. "She even smiles in her sleep. I said, 'Think of sad things, like a dog dying.' "

Or maybe like Teo singling her out to critique her smiling face. In any case, no smile could be seen onstage during the first preview performance.

The young cast has charmed the backstage crew at the Walnut, including vocal coach Douglas Lutz, who had to contend with clucking sounds during the recording session, some poking and shushing by Clarisse Surja, 6, of Philadelphia, who declared of most things that day, "That was awkward!"

Lutz did much of his coaching on the topic of suppressing coughs and other extraneous noises, not easy for a 5-year-old such as Jessica Halili of Philadelphia, the daughter of two opera singers, who nevertheless managed to hold off until the end. "The hardest thing is to do it over and over again," Lutz said. "The kid dynamic is part of the charm of the show."

Stage manager Lori Aghazarian made a point of greeting each of the children individually as they walked into the recording session and gave them lovely little private tours of the theater from the balcony, but she conceded: "We tend to think of them as one entity."

And then there was costume designer Colleen Grady, who welcomed the kids one by one into the dressing room to be fitted for their nightgowns (ordered in adult sizes in the "shop and chop" tradition of backstage costuming), and got treated to lovely little-kid confessions, one after the other. As the king would say (and does, again and again in the play), "Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera!"

The kids themselves appear to be enjoying the entire process, right down to little Isabella. "She loves it," said Anh Nguyen, 34, her mother. "She was really happy to be in Miss Saigon. Ever since then, it's like, "Will you take me to more auditions?' "


Contact staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2681, arosenberg@phillynews.com, or @amysrosenberg on Twitter.

 

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