When the news came that William James McKenzie V, who goes by Billy, had been accepted into the engineering program at Missouri S&T with a double major in engineering and pre-law next fall, it was more than a source of pride for him and his parents, Brandy and William James McKenzie IV (who goes by Buddy).
It was an accomplishment for Variety Theatre.
For the last two years Billy has been part of the one-of-a-kind production company that brings together kids and teens of all abilities to form an inclusive children’s ensemble that performs alongside a professional cast.
Last year he portrayed a blue fish in the company’s production of “The Little Mermaid,” and for this year’s show, “Mary Poppins, the Broadway Musical,” which opens next week, he has been cast in the teen ensemble and will sing three musical numbers, including “Play a Game,” “Go Fly a Kite” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
At just 16, Billy is already a senior at St. Clair High School, in large part because he took classes over the summer and online so that he could skip his junior year.
Billy and his family credit his involvement with Variety Theatre with giving him the confidence to achieve those goals.
In the past, Billy, who has autism, often found it difficult to make new friends and have confidence in his abilities, his mom said. He would wear headphones “to ignore the world” and only speak when he was approached first.
But since joining Variety Theatre and the Variety Children’s Chorus last year, Billy has needed his headphones less and is talking with his peers more.
“He has completely come out of his shell since joining Variety,” Brandy McKenzie remarked.
Billy said the difference has been that he feels comfortable at Variety. He loves the friends and community he’s found there, and it’s a place where he feels accepted just for being himself.
“They see what I can do versus seeing the autism first,” said Billy. “(They offer) acceptance and motivation to be the best version of yourself in spite of the challenges your diagnosis may throw your way.
“The best thing about being a part of Variety is no one tells you that you can’t do something,” he added. “We figure out a way to accomplish the task.
“Variety kids may have to do things a little differently at times, but with Variety and my Variety family they will give you the tools, medical equipment and opportunities to do things that most people think we never could. Hopefully, people start seeing our abilities versus our disability.”
Outside of Variety Theatre, Billy also has found the confidence to try new things. He auditioned and made the cast for a school production. He has made new friends at school. And he even sang as part of a quartet at Variety’s 2019 Dinner With the Stars — where the chorus sang a song with Sting.
“We can’t say thank you enough to Variety and the supporters who have given Billy the chance to accomplish these amazing things,” Brandy remarked.
You can see Billy and the rest of the children’s ensemble in Variety Theatre’s production of “Mary Poppins,” which runs Oct. 18-27 at the Touhill Performing Arts Center, One University Blvd., St. Louis.
Show Message ‘Supports Our Mission’
Every year, Variety Theatre selects a musical that provides wonderful entertainment alongside a powerful message for families to take home.
For all its rollicking adventures and musical numbers, “Mary Poppins” is the story of a father learning to love his children as they are and see the world through their eyes.
The magic of Mary Poppins opens his eyes and rescues a family in distress. There is no doubt about this as she brings on the fun and flies over the audience to the top of the opera house.
Even her friend Bert captivates everyone with his “proscenium walk” during the famous “Step in Time” number. He will tap dance up the side of the stage, upside down over the top of the stage and back down the other side — while singing about how the chimney sweeps always come to the rescue when needed.
“For Variety, this is an incredibly touching narrative that supports our mission of helping kids with disabilities, who often see the world in different ways,” said Jean Steck, communications director. “Instead of dismissing them, we all learn and grow more by meeting these children on their terms. It shouldn’t take a magical nanny to teach us that.”
This is Variety Theatre’s 11th annual Broadway musical production under the direction of Tony award nominee Lara Teeter. The cast of professional actors along with a live orchestra under the direction of Dr. Mark Schapman embraces an inclusive children’s ensemble.
The production includes sets by Dunsi Dai, costumes by Kansas City Costume Company, lighting designed by Nathan Scheuer, and sound design by Rusty Wandall – all award winners. Each year they lend their talents to mentor Variety Theatre teens of all abilities who learn backstage production from the best.
“The objective of Variety Theatre is to help children with disabilities achieve their full potential, opening up to them what is possible with the nurturing encouragement of others who share their passion for creative expression and the arts,” said Steck. “This special effort to bring together children of all abilities, under the direction and tutelage of seasoned performing arts professionals, creates a production that will not soon be forgotten.”
‘Mary Poppins’ Show Times
By attending a Variety Theatre production, you are not only enjoying a magical production, you are also supporting kids and teens, like Billy, as they learn new skills, make friends and build confidence. Show times for “Mary Poppins, the Broadway Musical” are as follows:
Oct. 18, 10 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Oct. 19, 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Oct. 20, 1:30 p.m.
Oct. 25, 10 a.m.
Oct. 26, 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Oct. 27, 1:30 p.m.
Tickets are $18-$50 and are available at www.touhill.org.
For more information on Variety the Children’s Charity of St. Louis, go to www.varietystl.org.