If you meet 13-year-old Benjamin Cheng, you might not peg him as a theatre kid. He’s reserved and poised and talkative to a point, but not in a ‘Look at me’ sort of way. In fact, he admits he’s more of an observer of people than someone who begs to be observed.
But on stage, a different child emerges. This Ben shines in the spotlight, where his strong voice and elegant dance moves make him a stand out. Morphing into different characters energizes the eighth grader, who brings his more exuberant self to auditions, too.
“In auditions, it takes being outgoing,” he says. “I don’t care if I mess up, I’ll just go for it.”
The complex role of Billy Elliot
And go for it he does in his starring role in Billy Elliot. Last February, Cheng auditioned with eight other boys for the starring role of Billy in the popular musical, Billy Elliot, currently on stage at Playhouse on the Square (August 14-September 6). He was a great fit for the part, says public relations director Noby Edwards, because he’s “a triple threat. He can dance, he can act, and he can sing.” And his talents get to shine in this performance, where Cheng is on stage for almost the entire show.
Ironically, it was Benjamin’s shyness that first prompted his mother Shelly, who he jokingly refers to as his “momanger,” to encourage him to try out. The stage had given his older sister, Megan (15), a place to develop her voice, and his younger sister, Olivia (11), her acting chops. Ben discovered he enjoyed theater, too, because “I got to be someone I wasn’t on stage.”
His first performance was with New Day Children’s Theatre at age 8. Then, Theatre Memphis’ Kids’ Cabaret introduced him to the world of musical theater, where he discovered he could sing. As time went on, he gave up soccer so he could concentrate solely on theater, performing in The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, Les Miserables, and Peter Pan.
The world of dance captivates
Ben initially wanted to learn hip-hop, but his mother offered him a deal. If he would take ballet and tap, then hip-hop lessons could be part of the package. He enthusiastically agreed, and it turned out that the combination was a perfect fit for his role as Billy, which uses all three dance forms in its energetic choreography.
Benjamin started learning new steps with assistant choreographer Whitney Branan in May, rehearsing two to three hours a day so he’d be ready when the show’s director, Geoffrey Goldberg, arrived in July. Goldberg is a New York City-based theatre artist who came to Memphis to rehearse the play. Once underway, it was eight-hour days, six days a week, refining the show night after night until, as Ben puts it, “the role was ingrained in my brain.”
Since the teen is not a fan of reading at all, he frequently learns his lines during rehearsal. “I prefer listening to books rather than reading them,” says Ben, who attends Briarcrest Christian School.
When not in a production, Ben enjoys hanging out with friends, playing video games, gobbling up macaroni and cheese, and walking his dog, Snickerdoodle. When I ask whether he’s got a girlfriend, his reply sounds vaguely, shall we say, rehearsed? “I’m too young. I haven’t developed the emotional readiness. But I’ve had crushes,” and he spreads out his arms wide to indicate how many.
Living in Lakeland means family time frequently involves driving Ben and his sisters to and from rehearsal, which can get particularly hectic when they’re cast in different shows.
“When the kids are performing in Memphis and Collierville, we have to meetup somewhere in the middle,” says Shelly. “We have date lunches.” But they like the way acting is shaping their son. “He’s grown more confident,” says Stephen Cheng, Ben’s dad.
And that confidence shines forth in his performance. But don’t take my word for it, see for yourself.