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Which Way You Going, 'Billy'?

November 15, 2011 By:
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Michael (Jacob Zelonsky)
So, you're 13, your Bar Mitzvah is next month -- do you know what your favorite present would be?
 
"Oh, that would be an iPhone," says Jacob Zelonsky.
 
How about his theatrical alter ego, Michael, whom he portrays in the tour of Broadway's 10 Tony Award-winning musical, Billy Elliot?
 
"Oh, he'd want a tutu." He pauses. "Maybe a pink boa."
 
Kids, go figure.
 
But Jacob's character figures prominently in the staged adaptation of the popular 2000 film, which just opened a limited run at the Academy of Music.
 
Sure, the show is titled Billy Elliot and focuses on a youngster held down by his impoverished upbringing in an English coal-mining town even as his spirit soars with thoughts of a ballet career.
 
But it is Zelonsky's zealous Michael, Billy's best friend, who steals the show nightly as the over-the-top, understanding youngster with a flair for the, uh, flamboyant.
 
Which way you going, Billy? It's a better question for Michael: He is a highlight in a show of highlights even as he totters on high heels, falling for his straight ballet-inclined buddy.
Michael (Jacob Zelonsky, right) dances to a different drummer alongside Billy (Lex Ishimoto).
 
Memphis-born Jacob says that he may have had second thoughts of how best to express the character whose break-out number ("Expressing Yourself") speaks for itself and the character's growing acceptance of his own homosexuality.
 
"It was really hard at first," says Jacob, whose own background includes a raft of regional productions.
 
"At first, I didn't think I would be able to do it, but then, finally, I said, 'I get it.' "
 
He also gets a lot of time on stage in this dynamic musical that seamlessly blends art and commerce, and taps into dreams dredged through the mud and muck of poverty before they are ultimately realized for the title character.
 
Speaking about tapping --"I didn't know how to tap dance" before taking the role, admits Jacob, "and had to learn quickly. It was a lot of hard work."
 
He handles it light as a feather -- boa. But then the Bar Mitzvah Boy/Tap Dance Kid has had the moral equivalent of good arches supporting his every step: a close-knit family.
 
Jacob -- who jokes that he picked up some stage experience from doing Purim plays at his synagogue -- is ready to beam at the bimah when he becomes a Bar Mitzvah. And some of the lessons he's picked up playing Michael seem torn right from the Torah.
 
"Don't stop believing in yourself and be who you are" is advice he offers Michael.
 
Advice worth texting by iPhone.
 
· · ·
 
Attention, Connie Francis: Where the boys are is far from the ballet classes depicted in Billy Elliot, where coal miners' sons in the cold-cocked enclave of County Durham, England, are expected to follow their fathers into the mines and make that life their own.
Debbie (Samantha Blaire Cutler) befriends "Billy Elliot," now at the Academy of Music.
 
Except for one: Billy the kid trades coal in his stockings for tights and toe shoes in discovering that if the world of ballet isn't exactly paradise, it is home.
 
Well, maybe it is paradise, too.
 
It certainly has been for a 10-year-old taking on the part of Debbie, the dance instructor's daughter, who has to toe the line at home but isn't averse to opening up the possibilities of the world in her budding friendship with Billy.
 
It's all part -- and a terrific part it is -- of a day's work for Samantha Blaire Cutler, a Louisville slugger of a youngster whose own Kentucky derbies have been filled with dance roles and rewards.
 
"She's like me," avows Samantha of Debbie, who "always gets mad at her mom. Sometimes I get mad at my own mom. She doesn't listen."
 
She will now. Her mom, Kim Goldman, sure has been paying attention to the talents of her tiny dancer in this Elton John-scored musical. "I've been singing and dancing since I was 3," reveals Samantha.
 
She has had good role models for her roles: "My mom and grandmom danced ballet when they were little," she says. And for the record, her mother does listen: "She always gives me good advice and support."
 
(She's not the only one: Samantha is managed by Philadelphia's Edie Robb and Louisville's Chase Jennings of Robb's Station 3, with offices in New York and Los Angeles.)
 
But it can be tough to tour and be taken away from regular school studies -- including Hebrew school -- although teachers have their own roles in her life, providing backstage tutorials. Nevertheless, Debbie is "a fun character; she speaks a lot of lines."
 
At the top of the line of ballets Samantha has seen, is it any wonder what her own sugar plum fairy of a favorite is? "Oh," she says without hesitation, "it's The Nutcracker."
 

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