Since Nov. 8, the 10-year-old has been performing onstage in this year’s Radio City Music Hall’s “Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes” in midtown Manhattan, and he can scarcely still believe it himself.
“I was coming back on the train [from New York City], where I had had five auditions [for other projects] and I got a phone call from my manager,” he said. “I gave the phone to my parents and my mom said, ‘Roman, you got the part in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular as Ben.’ I said, ‘I’m Ben? I’m Ben!’ And then I sobbed.”
As Roman explains it, in the show Ben is a 7-year-old boy who has to find a gift for his sister and the magic of Christmas for his brother. When I asked him if he has to speak onstage, he assures me, “I have to speak a lot! I think I have three sheets of lines, or no, not really (his mother gently corrects him). Two scenes of lines.”
Playing at the stunning Art Deco theater that holds nearly 6,000 seats would be daunting for any actor, let alone a 10-year-old boy. But as Roman recalls opening night, he said, “Well, I was a little calm and a little nervous, too—just a pinch. But then when I got onstage, everything changed. I felt normal and felt like me again.”
Sounds like the response of a true show biz veteran, but then again Roman has been involved in live theater since he was 5 years old. (Although, when he was 3, Roman somehow managed to find his way onstage during his sister Vanessa’s talent show at University Heights Elementary School.)
Roman, who loves singing, acting and Cub Scouts, has done, among other projects, a test pilot for Disney Theatrics’ Freaky Friday, played Tiny Tim at the McCarter Theater in A Christmas Carol, and performed in several productions at Mercer County Community Colleges’ Kelsey Theatre, including A Very Kelsey Christmas, Babes in Toyland and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Recently, he has worked with Nickelodeon on their April Fool’s Face paint YouTube project and did his first major voiceover for Hasbro Toys and Games.
His whole family, which includes sister Vanessa, 15, a junior varsity cheerleader; Brianna, 17, a high school soccer and lacrosse player at Steinert High School; and parents Bruce and Marie, are excited about Roman’s big new gig, because they know that getting the part of Ben was a very particular dream come true for the enthusiastic fifth-grader.
“He first saw the show at Radio City three years ago. I remember him turning to me and saying, ‘Mom, I’m going to be on that stage one day and play the part of Ben,’” Marie Engel said. “I told him, ‘From your lips to God’s ears,’ and now here it is, three years later and he is onstage and doing just that.”
Earlier this year, Marie had gotten an email that goes out to actors notifying them of various upcoming auditions. When she saw there were going to be auditions for the Radio City show, she called his manager, Kathy Castro, of Who’s That Kid, Inc., a children’s entertainment company, and asked her to please submit his name, telling her it would be a dream come true for him. Castro then got in touch with Roman’s agent, and they submitted his info for the part in the beginning of April. Roman was called in for his first audition in May, and remembers how thrilling it was. He had a second audition in August.
Through the middle to the end of October, rehearsals for everyone in the show take place in an Upper West Side church, where a separate room is reserved for tutoring for the children, so they can keep up with their schoolwork. Similarly, the tutoring continues in a designated location at Radio City once rehearsals (and the actual show) begin. Marie and Roman have rented an apartment in NYC from October through January to avoid having to commuting from Hamilton for the duration of the show. “A Christmas Spectacular” ends Jan. 5, 2020.
Roman’s favorite part of the Christmas Spectacular? “I love the finale, when everyone gets onstage and dances and we do other stuff and we take our bows.” And, even at his young age, Roman appreciates the splendor that surrounds him in the legendary 87-year-old venue, nicknamed the “Showplace of the Nation.”
“It’s just so beautiful,” he said. “I love the architecture, and the dome and all the lights. And when I stand onstage, it is amazing how many people I see in the audience.”
Although he admits it will probably be a bit of a letdown when this tremendous experience ends, the eternally optimistic young actor is already thinking ahead:
“I know I am going to be sad when it is over, but I hope I can try out again next year,” he said. “It would really be amazing if I got it.”