MOLINE — Whenever Brennan Hampton is on stage, he feels at home.
Each cast for the spunky, home-schooled 14-year-old becomes family, and his current part — the title role in Spotlight Theatre's “Billy Elliot” — is all the more tight-knit since his theatrical mom is played by his real mom, Cynthia Hampton.
Elton John's musical, an adaptation of a 2000 British film, tells the story of a North Country coal miner's young son who wants to study at the Royal Ballet School in London.
“The relationship that's shown in this show, with Billy and his mom, is so powerful,” Cynthia said before a recent rehearsal. "I knew if there was ever a role I could share a stage with Brennan, this would be too incredible an opportunity not to go for. It's been years. This has been really, really fun."
She did theater when she was a student at Rock Island High, and Northern Illinois University, and also acted when they lived in Colorado. Cynthia and her husband Gregg moved back to Rock Island with their family in 2013; Brennan is the oldest of four, and the only one being home-schooled (in his second year).
“Brennan is super kinetic; he likes to move,” his mom said. “He's always singing and dancing. Home-schooling really suits his learning style. And it's been fun, too, 'cause it affords him the opportunity to go places, and do things like Circa.”
“He's always had a gorgeous singing voice and loved music,” Cynthia said, noting he's been in the Quad City Symphony Youth Choir.
“He's just always been very verbal, talked at a young age, and sang at a young age,” she said. “He's very witty and punny and loves words. I was 22 when I had him, so I was the first of all my friends who had kids. He's probably been around grown-ups more. We've always treated him as an intelligent person who could hang with the conversations.”
“I like talking to adults, just in general,” Brennan said. “If there's a kids' table at Thanksgiving, I'm like, 'Nope, I'm at the adults' table.' I like talking to people.”
His first acting role was Michael Banks in Music Guild's “Mary Poppins” in August 2015. “Mostly, I liked the community, and I just enjoyed being on stage,” Brennan said. His first Circa show was “Music Man” (where he was Winthrop) in 2017.
“In a way, I really enjoy the arts, I relate to Billy,” Brennan said of the 11-year-old character who loves dance and is the only boy in a ballet class. “I played baseball for a little bit and I sucked at it.”
After “Mary Poppins” ended, he told his mom, "'I finally found people who are just like me,'" she said.
"For a 10-year-old boy who doesn't like sports, he never found that spot where he belonged. Being in that show, he realized, 'I found my people.' It was a wonderful discovery for him. It helped him in his own confidence, in understanding himself," she added.
“It has been so much work, but it's so worth it,” Brennan said. He prepared by studying at Ballet Quad Cities' School of Dance. “It's the hardest show I've ever done. The dancing is hard-core. When I finally get it down, I feel so good. I'm so tired afterward, but when I feel tired, I feel so much better than when I'm not tired."
“I love this part, I love this show,” Brennan said. “It's so fun. 'Expressing Yourself' is the best part of the show, besides the crazy dance numbers.” That song is about cross-dressing, led by Billy's best friend in the show, Michael (played by Luke Woodward).
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“It's about being yourself,” Chris Tracy, who plays Billy's gruff, bitter father, said. “Luke is perfect for this role; he's amazing in it. It is so cool watching this character, who is himself, encourage Billy, and watching all these characters around him in this mining village. ... It's a really powerful, meaningful number. It's a wonderful message.”
Tracy (who lives in DeWitt) is a Q-C theater veteran, but this is his first real dad role. In real life, he has a 10-year-old daughter.
“This father is way different than I am,” he said, adding there is profanity and fighting. “He's grown up in that community where men are men and women are women,” he said, noting he doesn't support Billy dancing. “There's a lot of other stuff going on that has his concern.”
“It's very much a period piece as it is anything,” Tracy said. “Finding out your son is going down a path you never expected. There are concerns about what other aspect might be coming out.” While his father fears it, Billy is not gay in the plot, but just a boy who likes to dance, Tracy said.
“Of course, he's also out of work, and finds his son is this prodigy who has this opportunity to go off and be something more than he could ever be in this town,” he said. “He doesn't have the resources to be there for his son, it rips him apart.”
“I don't think I've ever played a role this emotional,” Tracy said. “It is a roller-coaster for this character.”
“It's fun how we've really bonded during this process. We really feel like a little family,” he said of the cast. “When you're on stage, you have genuine feelings for the person, and have those moments that really feel genuine.”
“It's not a lot of acting, per se, it's just being on stage,” Brennan said. Tracy said the two of them clicked immediately, and share a similar sense of humor.
“I'm watching them and it's so fun to view things as Brennan's mom and Billy's mom,” Cynthia said. “It's become just a huge blessing to me. I love seeing these two playing off each other.”
Tracy also has literally broken down on stage during the show, which is choreographed by Bethany Piotter and directed by Adam Sanders. “Everybody's there for each other,” he said.
Brennan has acted in “Big” and “Matilda” at Spotlight earlier this year, and his Circa credits include “Holiday Inn,” “Elf,” “Freaky Friday” and the title role in “Pinocchio.” He'll also reprise the same role in the next “Elf” at Circa, starting next month.
Brennan gets performing arts credit for school being in these shows, and ballet class counts as physical education credit.
“It's been amazing to watch the progression,” Tracy said of the young actor, from this summer's “Matilda” to today. “Seeing that transformation over the last several months, and more recently, he's progressed very far. This is intense.”
“It's a very emotional show for me, real tears,” Brennan said. “Bring tissues. It's not acting; I'm actually crying.”