Andrew “AJ” Wilson has traveled the world, performing with productions like “Cats,” and his hometown family is very proud of him.
“Wherever you go, you carry this group of people with you,” Leann Smith told Wilson on Saturday at the Guthrie Theatre in Grove City.
Smith, a family friend, saw Wilson perform in “Cats” on Broadway – Wilson now lives in New York City – and he talked about returning to Grove City to give back to the community.
With the help of Olde Town Grove City and local businesses and individuals, a plan formed to welcome Wilson back to town, and Saturday was full of fun and surprises. Some of the proceeds from the day’s events benefit Olde Town, which is working to promote the arts in the Grove City area.
Wilson spent part of the afternoon at the Dotty McGill School of Dance, where he taught the “newspaper dance” from the “Newsies” musical; he has performed in the live stage show and was the dance captain and performer in the 2017 film version, a revival of the Disney movie that was released in 1992.
About 30 kids of all ages signed up for the special dance class; Wilson took dance lessons at that same studio while growing up in Grove City.
“This is a bonus,” said Kevin Garvey, a director at the dance studio, grandson of the late McGill, and friend of Wilson’s.
The boys and girls paid close attention to Wilson’s instructions – pivots, turns, jumps, stretches, slides, and more. The dancers responded to Wilson’s energy and encouragement, quickly learning the dance moves accompanied by the “Newsies” soundtrack.
The group used copies of Allied News and The Herald to perform part of the dance – they jumped onto the newspapers at one point, gliding across the wooden floor. Some of the younger kids giggled as they tried to maintain their balance.
The dance ended with the kids balling up the papers and throwing them into the air, yelling “Strike.” The “Newsies” story is based on the 1899 New York City newsboy strike.
Abbey Nichols, 12, has been taking dance lessons at McGill’s since she was 3, and said it was a great experience to learn from Wilson.
“I thought it was super cool,” she said.
Her mother, Connie Nichols, said that it was wonderful for Wilson to come back to town, and to show the younger generation an appreciation for the arts.
“That speaks to the values of our town,” she said.
Makenna Isles, 14, also a student at McGill’s, is part of the upcoming Grove City High School performance of “Cats.” Wilson helped the cast a few weeks ago with some choreography, and he’s a good role model, she said.
“I was so excited,” she said of working with him.
Makenna was one of many community members who then hurried next door to the Guthrie Theatre to watch “Newsies.” Olde Town Manager Anna Marie O’Rourke was behind the counter, where McGill dance teacher Melissa Biddle was turning in her ticket.
“I saw it coming. He always had that drive,” said Biddle, who taught Wilson at the dance studio.
Inside the theater, movie-goers settled into their seats, excited to see Wilson on the big screen. Eileen Miller and Damon Lewis of Franklin don’t know Wilson personally, but said they enjoy singing and “Newsies.”
Mary Jo Palmer, organizational committee chair for Olde Town, said at least 150 tickets were sold for the movie. She introduced Wilson, saying it was a special day to celebrate the arts.
Smith recalled Wilson performing in plays and musicals throughout his childhood, and she ran down an extensive list of his accomplishments during his professional career, including a dance number during Sam Rockwell’s opening monologue on “Saturday Night Live” earlier this year.
Wilson has also worked for Disney Cruise Lines; was a featured dancer in the dance corps for the New York City Opera; was a cast member and dance captain for the world premier of “Toy Story: The Musical;” and more.
Smith noted that his parents were in the audience, and she asked his family, friends, teachers, classmates, and fans to stand; everyone responded, giving Wilson a standing ovation.
Wilson and Smith had a short question-and-answer session before the movie. He talked about how his parents drove him to gymnastics classes in Butler six times a week, and how his family has been very supportive; that includes his brother and sister.
He always knew that he wanted to perform on Broadway, and his career has taken him all over the world and to every state but Alaska.
The audition process is nerve wracking, and he almost couldn’t believe it when he landed the “Cats” role of Tumblebrutus, said Wilson, who turns 32 this week.
The “Newsies” experience was also a lot of hard work. As dance captain and a performer, he spent many hours at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, where the production was filmed. He later said that he was a “swing,” meaning he served as an understudy for every role.
“I have little touches throughout,” he said of the movie.
Palmer then surprised Wilson with a key to Grove City. Wilson was speechless at first as Palmer presented him with a key made by Wendell August.
“I’m a keyholder to Grove City. Oh, my goodness,” he said, overcome with emotion.
Wilson said he hopes to represent the town well, thanking everyone who has encouraged him over the years.
After the movie, Wilson signed newspapers, and dozens of people gathered across the street at Collage Coffee and Art House for a reception.
Wilson spoke a bit more about his career and struggles and triumphs, and caught up with old friends. He expects to continue pursuing more auditions, and said a lot of his success is due to luck.
“They always say, ‘How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans,’” he said.
But he’s already living his dream, and community members like Patty Wilson came out Saturday to reconnect with Wilson; she was his school guidance counselor.
“His heart is so big,” she said.
Wilson’s parents Mary Ellen Wilson and Dr. Fred Wilson were taking in the scene with smiles on their faces. They said they’re very proud of their son, and they hope he inspires others.
“He has always put in the extra mile,” Mrs. Wilson said.