Michael Whitney was like a caged tiger waiting to be unleashed, a metaphor he could interpret and create on the stage as well as anyone.
A 2009 graduate of Niskayuna High School, Whitney had been attending the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City. But instead of finishing the two-year program there, he barely made it through two semesters. His time in school was short because his career just couldn’t wait.
“I learned a lot about theater there, the teachers are great and the school itself is very good,” said Whitney, who has been a part of the national touring production of “Beauty and the Beast” since October 2010. “But I just wasn’t happy there. I felt like I was treading water. I knew what I needed to know. I just had to go out and do it.”
‘Beauty and the Beast’
WHERE: Proctors Theater, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: Through Sunday
HOW MUCH: $70-$20
MORE INFO: 346-6204 or www.proctors.org
Two weeks after quitting school, he secured his gig with “Beauty and the Beast,” which will begin its six-day run at Proctors in Schenectady on Tuesday. After a year and a half with the company, Whitney, who is not yet 21, is serving as a swing (one who can perform many different tasks), is understudying three different roles, and is acting as the production’s dance captain.
“I know I’m lucky, and I’m still overwhelmed, to be honest with you,” he said. “This is what I wanted to do, and to be going back to Schenectady and doing it at Proctors is amazing. That’s where I saw ‘Phantom’ and other touring shows. That’s where I realized this is what I wanted to do.”
For Gazette theater writer Matthew G. Moross' review of this show, click here.
Whitney says he will have the opportunity to perform in at least the ensemble next week at Proctors, and may also have the opportunity to play one of three roles.
“When I first got the job I understudied for three roles, including Lefou, Gaston’s little sidekick,” he said.
Along with Lefou, he has played Monsieur D’Arque and Carpet. “But I also understudy for all the men in the ensemble, and I’m the dance captain so I might just tell someone, ‘You, sit out today and watch Lumiere.’ He’ll watch that role because he may have to do it himself, and then I’ll take over his role. I’ll be dancing somewhere, and to be doing it at Proctors is pretty big for me.”
Whitney is the classic triple-threat commodity in theater circles, meaning he can dance, sing and act. The dancing part, however, is what’s making him so valuable these days, and it was dancing that was the third and final component of his performance triad.
“The dance captain maintains the integrity of the show in terms of any dance numbers in the production,” he said. “Whatever the choreographer has given me, I have to make sure that’s what we do. When somebody leaves the show and a new dancer comes in, I have to teach them. And, if anyone has a problem or issue, they come to see me and we try to fix it.”
Not bad for someone who was more concerned about his base-stealing than dancing just five years ago.
“I was into baseball and other sports as a freshman at Niskayuna, but I did want to sing in the a cappella group, and I thought if I tried out for a musical that might help me,” remembered Whitney. “I got a small part in ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood,’ and I really liked it and started to go to SLOC [Schenectady Light Opera Company] and performing in the ensemble there.”
Not only did he discover that he loved dancing, but people who could recognize talent were discovering him as well.
“The first time I saw Michael was at Niskayuna High School, and I think it was in ‘Edwin Drood,’ ” said Debra Pigliavento, who has a few Broadway credentials on her résumé and now runs the Orlando School of Dance in Schenectady along with her sister Michele.
“It was just a supporting role, but I can remember thinking to myself, ‘Somebody’s gotta do a show for this kid.’ He was a standout. He had no formal dance training but he had this boundless energy on stage. I’ve seen a lot of talented kids in this business, but he was someone who really stood apart from the others.”
Along with working with Pigliavento when he was in high school, Whitney was an intern at the now-defunct New York State Theatre Institute his senior year at Niskayuna.
“Working at NYSTI was what it might be like if you really got a big gig,” he said. “That’s where I actually learned how to act, and had the opportunity to work with wonderful creative people, people who were real pros in the business. It’s a shame we had to lose NYSTI.”
During his senior year at NYSTI, he played Peter van Daan in “Yours, Anne,” a musical based on the diary of Anne Frank, and later really showed off his acrobatic dancing skills in an intern production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” Sue Ciccarelli Caputo, who has performed at NYSTI, Capital Repertory Theatre and Fort Salem Theater, was the choreographer for that show.
“I remember that at the same time we were rehearsing for ‘Charlie Brown,’ I was also doing ‘The Philadelphia Story’ at NYSTI,” said Caputo. “There was a very quick rehearsal period, and I can remember we were able to mount Michael’s big supper-time number in one two-hour span. It was remarkable how he was quickly able to translate the image in my brain and produce it on the stage so beautifully.”
Whitney played Snoopy in “Charlie Brown,” providing Caputo with a rather athletic character to work with.
“I had this idea of Snoopy jumping off his doghouse, and I asked Michael, ‘Can you do a Russian?’ ” said Caputo, referring to a dance move made famous by Russian dancers. “Well, I was thrilled when he did this double pirouette with tap shoes off of the doghouse. It was remarkable.”
Along with his natural ability, Whitney also displayed a sharp acumen for understanding choreography, which is very likely why he was named a dance captain for a national touring production despite being so young, according to Pigliavento.
“That’s a real testament to Michael’s people skills and shows you just how organized he is,” she said. “Once you get into a swing position and you’ve shown yourself to be very reliable, you become a pretty valuable individual. I can see Michael taking on that role and relishing that responsibility. He’s a great kid. I can’t say enough about him.”
Caputo feels pretty much the same way.
“He’s a very hard worker, but he’s also got a heart of gold,” she said. “He’s one of the kindest, sweetest guys you’ll ever know, and he can not only dance, but he can also sing and act. He really is a true triple threat.”
‘I feel pretty lucky’
When “Beauty and the Beast” wraps up in April of next year, Whitney will travel to Dallas to work in the Lyric Stage production of a 1939 Rodgers and Hart musical called “Too Many Girls.”
“During a six-week break we had last August, I played Tulsa in ‘Gypsy’ in Dallas, and they want me back for this revival of an old Rodgers-Hart musical,” he said. “They said there’s a perfect part for me, and I’m going to be part of a first cast recording of the show ever.”
One of his professors at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy helped Whitney land the job in Texas. While his talent and smarts have carried him to his early success, he’s quick to add that he’s also been very fortunate.
“I feel pretty lucky about a lot,” he said. “A professor helped me get the gig in Texas, and I got lucky with ‘the Beast’ because of all the girls and boys auditioning, they were looking for a guy who’s a tenor, who can dance and cover all the roles, and also tumble.”
Along with talent and luck, there was an early-morning demonstration of old-fashioned self-discipline a little more than 19 months ago that also played a part in his success.
“The morning of my ‘Beast’ audition, it was cold and rainy and I just said to myself, ‘I’m terrible, I’m not going,’ ” he remembered. “I had auditioned for a regional production of ‘Almost, Maine’ about two weeks earlier, and I hadn’t heard from them. I was thinking to myself, ‘You’re never going to work.’ ”
Then came the pep talk.
“I told myself, ‘Listen, you quit school to be an actor, now get out there and audition,’ ” he said. “I went to the audition, I know I killed it, and two hours later I got a phone call telling me I got the gig if I want it. Later that day I also got a phone call from ‘Almost, Maine,’ offering me a part in their show.”
He was going to be busy, he told them. Very busy.
Whitney isn’t the only Niskayuna graduate performing in “Beauty and the Beast.” Brett Gregory, a Niskayuna graduate from 2001, is a member of the pit orchestra traveling with the tour.
Emily Behny is Belle in this production, while Dane Agostinis is playing the Beast and Logan Matt Farcher is Gaston.