You know that face.
Many locals will recognize the lead actor of Billy Bishop Goes to War from the hysterical A&W commercial featuring the fresh-faced Ryan Beil as the bumbling trainee.
Not only was the popular TV commercial shot in Chilliwack, but Beil is returning on Feb. 14 to offer a different side of himself, one that really tests the very limits of his acting ability, in the vibrant lead role as Billy Bishop.
He plays the high-flying ace from the First World War, a fighter pilot who crosses swords with commanders, the Germans, and the British in a tale of derring-do.
Beil has already nabbed a Jessie Richardson award this year, one of B.C.’s top theatre prizes, for his role as Bishop.
But still the commercial dogs the 27-year-old actor. He has his own Facebook page and fans as the bumbling A&W trainee, and has gained a fair bit of notoriety for it, said director Sarah Rodgers, in a phone interview with The Progress.
“So we were in bar in Saskatoon, on tour with Billy Bishop, and someone comes up to Ryan and says, ‘I know you…You’re that A&W guy.”
But performing the Billy Bishop role on the theatrical stage is like playing the Canadian hamlet.
“So this guy has chops,” says the award-winning director, who also won a Jessie for direction.
The strength of the writing goes a long way.
“There’s also lots of humour and wit in this show,” said Rodgers, “and yet it is moving and powerful at times.”
Throughout the story, the myth of the man is revealed as he tells of those who saw war as a good time, reconciling the ecstasy of flying with the horrors of WWI.
But how does the director and cast “blow the dust off the production” and make it new?
Here’s how. The music of Billy Bishop has always been performed on piano in the past, but Rodgers boldly chose the acoustic guitar to be the main instrumental voice of the piece, along with some electric guitar.
She had always declined offers to direct the play in the past, not imagining she could match the original.
“What changed for me was when Ryan said, ‘My friend Zach is a guitar player.’ I immediately thought it would open up a whole new vision. I realized I was going to do something no one has ever done before.”
It was a creative risk and she grabbed the opportunity.
“What’s really exciting about this piece is that the musician Zachary Gray is actually the son of John Gray. Our musician is the son of the original player, so he’s literally a Billy Bishop baby.”
And 28 years after the first run of the play, the second generation continues the tradition.
It’s a young cast to boot.
“Nobody has ever played Billy Bishop under the age of 30. They’re close to the age the fighter pilots would have been and that’s brought a real authenticity.”
Billy Bishop Goes to War, 8 p.m. Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, $35/$32/$30 by calling 604.391.SHOW(7469) or www.chilliwackculturalcentre.ca.