Life Onstage, at an Early Age
"Think lovely, wonderful thoughts," Peter Pan orders, throwing golden glitter all over the Darling children.
"Summer!" cries Wendy.
"Fishing!" yells John.
"Candy!" shouts Michael, and soars above the stage. John (played by Michael LaVolpe) soon joins him, swimming through the air like a frog. "I'm flying! I'm flying!"
He could have added "acting!" to the list of things that send him soaring. Michael isn't waiting until he grows up to find out what he wants to do. The lanky 13-year-old whose home is on Long Island, N.Y., has been on stage since he was 8. He has even acted in a pilot show for a television series.
His latest gig lets him fly every day and twice on Thursdays as John Darling in the nationally touring show of the musical "Peter Pan."
When he's not swooping across the stage or being menaced by Captain Hook, Michael prefers a baseball cap to John's top hat.
His mom says it was easy to tell early on that Michael might like being onstage.
"From the time he was walking, he would act out entire movies," Kathy LaVolpe says. " 'Star Wars,' 'Batman' ... he'd make us make him the costumes and he would literally know the whole movie, verbatim."
His parents took him to the theater to let him see what it was like. He auditioned for a couple of television commercials, but nothing worked out. Then, when he was about 8, his mom showed him an ad for a community theater and asked if he wanted to try out.
"The ad said to bring an audition song, but all he knew were Beatles' songs, so he sang one of those," she says. He got the part.
Since November, Michael's day has begun at 10:30 a.m., with four hours of school at the theater with other young members of the cast. That's followed by an hour or so of homework, except on Thursdays, when there's an afternoon show.
After that, he says, "I've got about an hour to do what I want," like play Nintendo or watch TV. After that, it's time for dinner, and then it's off to the theater. The curtain goes up at 7:30. When he returns to the hotel at 11, he tries to fall asleep fast so he can wake up and do it all over again.
On Mondays, unless the actors are traveling to a new city, he says, "I get to sleep in until totally whenever I want to."
"Everybody always says, 'Oh, you have it so rough with all this school and everything.' But I figure if I was at home, I would have [school] for twice as long, and then I wouldn't get to go to the show at night," Michael says.
It adds up to a life that, as Peter Pan puts it, is "nicely crammed, with no space between one adventure and the next."
AND of course there's the flying. "It's so cool," Michael says, eyes lighting up. The highest he's gotten is about 20 feet in the air. While he says he didn't need any flying lessons, the harness the actors wear under their costumes took some getting used to.
But doesn't it get boring doing the same thing over and over again eight times a week?
No, Michael says, "We're not really repeating it over and over again because the cast is so great, they keep it fresh every day. They'll react differently to what I do, and then I'll react differently. That's what makes the whole thing fun. If it were the same thing every single night ... I don't know, I might get a little sick of it."
To prepare, Michael read "Peter Pan," by J.M. Barrie, "about five times." Then he thought hard about the character of John. He made up a life story about him. He also worked with a dialogue coach on John's English accent. "The sets are great, so that makes us feel a little bit at home, helps us feel like we're really there."
Like Peter Pan, Michael left home at a young age. But unlike Peter, he often takes his family with him. (His mom or his grandmother travels with him as much as possible.) When he's at home on Long Island, he says, "it's extraspecial to see my friends and hang out with them." The show is booked through early August.
He stays in touch with friends by e-mail. "And you know," he adds, "there's always the old-fashioned way: writing letters."
"Peter Pan" also lets Michael show off his other love: drumming. One of the songs, "Ugg-a-wum," has the cast beating on everything in sight - even the floor. Michael's love of music is something he shares with his dad, who's at home with Michael's sister, Jessica. "At one point, my living room was a drum set," his mom laughs. "There was no room for furniture."
IT was his drumming that got Michael on TV. He performed as a musician last year on a pilot show called "The Blue Swirles," which aired on Nickelodeon.
"It's so much different from the theater, 'cause you know, theater's all one take," he says of his TV experience. "It took six to eight hours to do this 30-second scene. First they had to set up the whole set, then they had so many different shots and angles they wanted to do. I was so antsy by the end of it because I was literally sitting in that seat for hours. But I don't know, it was pretty neat."
When he's not on the road or in school, Michael likes to play street hockey, soccer, and baseball (he prefers center stage on the pitcher's mound). He also likes to ride his bike to the beach to go fishing.
In the summer, he performs with Gateway, the community theater where he got started. "You don't get paid for it. But you go to rehearsals eight hours a day. It's great. Then, every weekend is our show. Really, it's free training," he says.
"Everybody always says, 'You must be so proud of him,' " Mrs. LaVolpe says. "He was blessed with his talent. What I'm proud of is what he's done with it and how he's handled it."