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Duluth actor Tanner Hagen has the singing, dancing and acting chops to carry Playhouse’s ‘Billy Elliot’

Local actor Tanner Hagen, 12, is the lead in the Duluth Playhouse show "Billy Elliot," and he has the acting, dancing and singing chops for the job. “This is someone who wanted that role for a long time,” said the show's director Kelly Grussendorf. “He was ready. This was in his soul. That was pretty incredible." Mike Krebs / mkrebs@duluthnews.com1 / 3
The cast of "Billy Elliot" rehearses a musical number on Tuesday. The show kicks off July 13 at the Duluth Playhouse. Mike Krebs / mkrebs@duluthnews.com2 / 3
Jennifer Madill Hagen of Duluth shares the stage with her son, Tanner Hagen, in the Duluth Playhouse show "Billy Elliot." The pair share a dance number in the performance. Mike Krebs / mkrebs@duluthnews.com3 / 3

Here’s the thing with casting “Billy Elliot”: It lives and dies by its lead — a preteen boy who can dance, act, sing and carry an otherwise adult production.

So when the Duluth Playhouse selected the musical for this season, the community theater’s keepers knew they would have to conduct at least a regional search for the right actor for the title role.

“I don’t think you can sacrifice one of the triple threats,” said Playhouse executive director Christine Seitz.

They cast a wide net and they did it early — helped along by social media and a base of Billy Elliots here and there who have made a career of the role. They received interest from Canada, California, a boy in a touring production of the show and another in Arizona who was in his third go-round in the role, according to Seitz.

Then Tanner Hagen — the closest you can get to a theatrical blueblood in Duluth — walked in the door. The 12-year-old is the son of Jennifer Madill Hagen and Dusty Hagen, who own and operate Madill Performing Arts Center in Lincoln Park.

The cast of "Billy Elliot" rehearses a musical number on Tuesday. Photos by Mike Krebs.

It took him about 25 seconds of the song “Electricity” too woo Seitz and director Kelly Grussendorf.

“I was like ‘Holy Cow, are you kidding me?’ ” Seitz recalled. “It started with that.”

As for dance: Hagen has been competing in — and winning — national dance competitions for years. And acting: he has a manager and an agent and has recently been kicking around the Los Angeles market. He’s cast in a short indie flick that begins filming after “Billy Elliot” closes.

In Hagen, the Playhouse had found its triple threat.

“I’ve worked in big cities,” Grussendorf said. “I went to grad school for acting and dance. You know you’re seeing something special when a small child like that is so natural.”

Theater roots

Hagen has never seen Disney’s animated version of “Beauty and the Beast.” His introduction to the classic tale of the bookish Belle and the misanthropic wolf-buffalo-bear she comes to love was on the Duluth Playhouse’s stage in 2009 when his parents played the romantic leads.

“I had to come to every rehearsal,” he said.

Jennifer Madill Hagen and Dusty Hagen are Denfeld High School graduates who, after high school, went to New York City to study musical theater and dance. After graduation, they returned to Duluth and opened the performing arts center.

A few years after “Beauty and the Beast,” the whole family — including older brother Cooper, who is into dirtbiking these days — appeared in Lundeen Productions’ “Jekyll and Hyde.”

Tanner Hagen was a newsboy in the musical that starred his father in the dueling lead roles.

Jennifer Madill Hagen is Mrs. Wilkinson and Tanner Hagen, 12, is Billy in "Billy Elliot."

“I remember practicing in my bed,” he said.

Both parents, who teach at Madill Performing Arts Center, continue to appear on local stages. Dusty Hagen was in Renegade Theater Company’s 2015 production of the Chicago shipwreck musical “Eastland.” Madill Hagen is a returning judge during the Minnesota Ballet’s Celebrity Dance Challenge, where she provides big and bold critiques of the celebrity performers. She also plays dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson in “Billy Elliot” — and shares a dance number with her son.

Tanner Hagen describes his mother as a full-on dancer, his father as more of a voice. They are both, he said, good actors. As for the genetic breakdown:

“We say he’s our baby child who got the voice and the legs,” Madill Hagen added.

Born to be Billy

If there is a role that Tanner Hagen was born to play, it is this. “Billy Elliot” is the story of a young boy in Northern Ireland who eschews the more socially accepted pastime of boxing in favor of ballet. For a while, he is forced to hide this from his family. When they find out, it’s forbidden.

“(He) is the child in the show — without the personal problems,” said Grussendorf. “He is that kid.”

Hagen saw a production of “Billy Elliot” at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis when he was about 5. His memory of it isn’t strong. His mother recalled that he was bored.

“I was?” he asked, surprised.

“You were just too young,” she said.

Since then, it has become one of his favorite musicals.

Jennifer Madill Hagen of Duluth shares the stage with her son, Tanner Hagen, in the Duluth Playhouse show "Billy Elliot."

Hagen, who does his schooling online, spends every day at the dance studio and, at home he maintains a whiteboard with a list of about 12 dance-related exercises he completes each day, focusing on balance, abs, cardio, flexibility.

He has a DVD of the movie starring Elliott Hanna, and he follows all the Broadway Billy Elliots on Instagram. He’s taken a piece from each to create his own version, he said.

Still, Hagen’s audition surprised even his mother, who had never heard him sing the way he sang “Electricity” that day. She recalled eavesdropping from outside the door. Cue the tears.

“I was blown away,” Madill Hagen said. “I feel like he’s a genius. He’s so natural — dancing, singing and acting.”

Grussendorf said Hagen came to the first day of rehearsal almost completely memorized and with the required accent. She has come to see him as super talented, unique, humble and dedicated.

“This is someone who wanted that role for a long time,” Grussendorf said. “He was ready. This was in his soul. That was pretty incredible. That pushed the rest of the cast.”

“He’s so centered and grounded,” added Seitz. “He’s so honest. It’s so important that an actor is grounded and that honesty makes them accessible. It’s rare to see such a young person be able to have that gift.”

If you go
  • What: Duluth Playhouse’s production of “Billy Elliot”
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through July 30
  • Where: Duluth Playhouse, 506 W. Michigan St.
  • Tickets: Call (218) 733-7555