Manhattan is a long way from Manlius, but the two girls seem to be adapting well to life in the Big Apple, where they sublet a third-floor East Village apartment along with their mother, Melissa Whyland. Their father, Manlius attorney Chris Whyland, stays in their family home and visits them when he can. He’ll be traveling to New York City this week to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas with his wife and girls.
“I miss the snow up there,” said Casey in a phone interview from her agent’s office. “They have snow here, but it’s yucky snow. Everybody is walking down the street with their head down and their face all scrunched up.”
Tracey, as played by 12-year-old Casey, is a bit of a misfit who doesn’t concentrate on her dance lessons and regularly draws scorn from the ballet instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson. “She’s really not concerned about ballet class, she’s only concerned about eating her pie.” Casey likes to think of it as an apple pie, although she’s been told by those more familiar with British cuisine that Tracey’s obsession is really meat pie.
Ten-year-old Erin Whyland from Manlius, in rehearsals for Billy Elliot.
Debbie, according to Erin, “is a foulmouthed little girl trying to impress Billy, who she has a crush on, by using bad words. Only she doesn’t really know how to use them, and it doesn’t come out right.” She has several lines in the play, most of them involving words 10-year-olds aren’t supposed to use with their mother in the room. For example, at one point she tries to share her affection for Billy, or at least get his attention, by telling him, “You look like a dickhead to me.”
Casey toured 50 cities in 2005-2006 with the traveling company for the Broadway production of Annie. Her audition for that role came about as something of a fluke. “I had just been in Annie at the Mulroy Civic Center. I went to audition to see what it was like. I didn’t even know the words to ‘Tomorrow.’” Through several days of auditions she made cut after cut, until she was offered the part. She thought about it a few weeks, then put the decision in the hands of her grandmother, who told her to do it.
The girls are being home-schooled by their mother and a tutor while the show, which promises to have a very long run, keeps them out of town. Last year Erin attended fifth grade at Mott Road Elementary School in Fayetteville and Casey was a seventh-grader at Eagle Hill Middle School in Manlius. They have been dancing since they were 2, and studied at the Dance Studio with Linda Bell. Their acting careers were launched when a friend of Casey’s invited her to be in the Syracuse Children’s Theater production of The Wizard of Oz, which was followed by Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Peter Pan.
Her father Chris was a stage manager for the Peter Pan production, and her mom was there chaperoning Casey, so that meant Erin was usually around and, eventually, on stage. Neither parent has a background in musical theater. Chris and Melissa met at Syracuse University where he was a law student and she was pursuing her MBA. They were married in Cazenovia in 1991, and Melissa worked for a physician’s group before taking off to accompany Casey on the Annie tour.
When rehearsals began for Billy Elliot, Melissa was working in the Career Services office at Le Moyne College. The girls were with chaperones in New York, and the parents came down to visit each weekend, until it “got to be too much,” according to Melissa. “It certainly is a challenge,” Chris agreed.
The girls have performances scheduled for both Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, but they are planning a family Christmas celebration at the apartment on Christmas Eve with “a 4-foot fake tree,” said Erin. On Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve Broadway shows shut down. Asked what she planned to do on Dec. 31, Casey replied, “We’re going to try to get out of Times Square.”
Now that the show is in production (previews began on Oct. 1 and the opening was Nov. 13), the girls are a bit more relaxed than they were during rehearsals. They perform eight times a week, which they find tiring but very exciting. The cast contains 28 children, and they all have become good friends. “We have birthday parties, sleep-overs, and we just hang out,” said Casey.
So, at age 10 and 12, what wisdom do these two budding starlets have to offer those who would like to one day see their name up in lights? “Follow your dreams. Keep on and you’ll make it. Don’t give up.” Even if it takes until you’re 12.