Bethel-raised Michelle Aravena not only represents a cool local touch to the already-promising Goodspeed Musicals’ production of “Billy Elliot,” based on the 2000 movie of the same name and premiering Friday, Sept. 13, but also sharp casting.
“I was just saying to someone the other day how everybody is cast so appropriately and everybody is really stepping into the skin of their characters,” said Aravena of rehearsals. “Which is a good sign.”
Aravena, who recently bought a house in New Fairfield, has performed on Broadway, toured with “A Bronx Tale” as Rosina (at the Shubert recently), “Mamma Mia” and played The Kid in Goodspeed’s “The Roar of the Greasepaint — The Smell of the Crowd.” She and her sister also teach show-biz hopefuls, her sister in Brewster, N.Y., and Aravena in New York City.
Like the main character of “Billy Elliot,” Aravena was encouraged by a dance teacher when she was 9 to try out for a production of “South Pacific” at Richter Park in nearby Danbury. That eventually led to a career, and now Aravena is playing the dance instructor character, Mrs. Wilkinson, who encourages Billy to dance amid the gritty backdrop and dramatic circumstances of the 1984 Miners Strike in northern England.
The father-son story on Broadway was nominated for a hefty 15 Tonys in 2009.
Mrs. Wilkinson is a middle-aged woman in a stressed town who is trying to raise a daughter in an unhappy marriage, said Aravena. “She teaches this recreational ballet class once a week; she’s in desperate need of some inspiration, some passion, some color. And in walks this boy and she immediately sees a light ... and potential.”
That’s personal to Aravena, being an acting coach herself now. “I have two nephews, one is 8 and already in the business. So we are super passionate about kids in this business and spreading the lesson of: There are no boundaries; if you want to do something, if you feel strongly about something, you do it. And we are here to help you, which is basically what the story of ‘Billy Elliot’ is saying.”
The role just fits Aravena.
“When I saw that Goodspeed was doing this, I kind of looked it up ... and said, ‘Oh! Not only is this me but this is my dance teacher.’”
With Taven Blanke and Liam Vincent Hutt sharing the title role, “Billy Elliot” at Goodspeed will be directed by Gabriel Barre and feature new sets, costumes and choreography — tailored, or course, to the homey confines of the opera house on the river. “We’re utilizing the entire theater, including the lobby,” said Aravena, who will join the cast in employing a northern British accent for the show (with help from a dialect coach).
The score is by Elton John, although as Aravena points out, “This is almost like a play with music. ... It’s not about his score; it’s about how his score supports the story.”
Aravena said she was lucky growing up in Connecticut, close to New York City and blessed with venues such as Darien Dinner Theater, Candlewood Playhouse and Downtown Cabaret in Bridgeport (where she earned her Equity card). “So I had all these theaters available to me where they would pull in professionals from New York but they would hire all their kids locally. ... And I had two parents that would drop everything and do whatever they could if they saw a dream that I wanted to follow or passion I wanted to pursue.”
One show that Aravena did before age 18 in all three Connecticut venues above was “Evita,” and she was thrilled to play the lead role of Eva within the past year at St. Louis Rep. “It exceeded all expectations,” she said.
This production, running through Nov. 24 at the storied theater in East Haddam, is about overcoming obstacles and stereotypes, Aravena said, including gender roles and dancing.
“It’s kind of amazing to me that we are telling this story now. It’s a story from the 1980s ... and it is still so relevant today. With that whole thing that just happened with Lara Spencer from ‘Good Morning America.’ She basically commented (negatively) on a little boy who was wanting to take ballet classes, and ... it became a huge thing to the point where 300 ballet dancer boys went to ‘Good Morning America’ the other day and did a ballet class on the street.”
Aravena said she lives “in a bubble of artists” but she’s “shocked that we’re still having this discussion in 2019.” Spencer, she noted, sat down with dancers on air and said she was sorry and asked to be educated on the issue. “We made it into a learning experience, and it was actually really beautiful how it was handled.”