Local dancer plays title role in 'Billy Elliot' 

J.P. Viernes — one of five teens playing the title role in the national tour of the hit musical “Billy Elliot” — has a few things on his mind about the prospect of returning to the Bay Area.

“I haven’t been home since December. It’ll be so nice to see my friends, to sleep in my own bed, and to enjoy the coastal weather. I miss it,” says the 15-year-old performer, in a phone interview from Dallas. “I’ll probably go to the beach.”

On his days off, Viernes will more than likely be hanging around his hometown of Half Moon Bay, visiting pals and his old dance studio (the Shely Pack Dancers), rather than The City, where the show opens Monday at the Orpheum Theatre.

Not that J.P. — it stands for John Paul — is having a bad time on the road.

“All of it is pretty fun,” he says of performing, calling the feeling of accomplishment, the chance to learn a lot and having the audience cheer at the show’s finish the best aspects of the job.

He also gets to meet new and famous people, including “Billy Elliot” composer Elton John, Woody Harrelson and even Oprah Winfrey, during the show’s run in Chicago.

The most challenging parts of touring, Viernes says, are giving a fresh performance each time and the long, hard rehearsals, which he admits do “pay off.”

The trouper is clearly accustomed to practice. An award-winning dancer who began when he was 7, he went through five auditions in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York before landing the role in 2009.  

At the time, he was fairly new to singing and acting, with just one bona fide theatrical part — Jerome in Coastal Repertory Theater’s “South Pacific” — under his belt. These days, the experienced dancer slightly favors ballet, but he still likes jazz, tap and modern too. In some ways, Viernes identifies with his character.

“The big thing is that we both really love to dance,” he says. Both are creative, and both get great satisfaction after learning a new step. J.P. differs from Billy in that his family is supportive of his dance career, while the character faces opposition.

J.P. admittedly was the object of a little bit of bullying at school, which he ignored. He thinks that with TV shows such as “So You Think You Can Dance” — which reveal how difficult and fun the pursuit can be — social pressure against boys dancing has eased.

He attributes the popularity of “Billy Elliot” in part to its main theme, about “staying true to yourself” and because it has “really entertaining big dance moves.”

While he and his co-stars aren’t supercompetitive, Viernes says sometimes they face off to see who can do the most turns.

His plans for the future include finishing school — he likes physics and chemistry — and continuing to perform. In the short term, he’s excited about seeing his friends in person in Half Moon Bay.

“I hope you guys come to the show, and I hope it’s not too foggy there,” Viernes says.


Billy Elliot

Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. this Monday only, and Tuesdays-Fridays; 2 p.m. select Wednesdays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; 7:30 p.m. select Sundays; no show July 3; closes Sept. 17
Tickets: $35 to $99
Contact: (888) 746-1799, shnsf.com/shows/billyelliot

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Leslie Katz

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