February 25, 2020

Jacob Zelonky: Taking his talents to London

AGE: 18
HIGH SCHOOL: Van Nuys High School Performing Arts Magnet
GOING TO: London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art

Sitting at home in Sherman Oaks, Jacob Zelonky exuberantly sang a few bars of “Tradition” from “Fiddler on the Roof.”

He is headed for the prestigious London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art in the fall, the next step in a music career that began with “Fiddler” at a community theater in Los Angeles when he was 3. He performed as one of the boys in the chorus while his father, Robb “Robbo” Zelonky, now the song leader at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, played Tevye.

Zelonky’s parents were initially worried that he would be bored while performing in the show. “You have to be very quiet backstage, but I really enjoyed the whole process,” he said. “And that was the beginning of [performing] for me.”

Three years after his family moved to Memphis from Los Angeles in the early 2000s, Zelonky played a street urchin in “Annie” at age 6 and then Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol” at the Desoto Family Theatre in Mississippi. His first professional turn, at Memphis’ Playhouse on the Square, was portraying the boy Jojo in “Seussical the Musical.”

Zelonky’s career ramped up when a casting director took an interest in him and sent Jacob, then 10, on auditions for Broadway shows in New York. The producers of the musical “Billy Elliot,” which is about an aspiring young dancer, were so intrigued by Zelonky that they called him back for multiple auditions over several months. To address his lack of formal dance training, the producers sent him to “a tap-dancing boot camp,” Zelonky said. But, he added, he skipped his final audition to portray the lead in his elementary school’s production of “Aladdin.”

Even so, the “Billy Elliot” producers hired Zelonky to perform in the two-year national tour, as Billy Elliot’s best friend, Michael, who serves as the show’s comic relief.

As he toured, Zelonky studied for his bar mitzvah by listening to tapes from his cantor in Memphis; he became a bar mitzvah at a Reform synagogue in St. Louis, where the “Billy Elliot” company was performing.

About a year later, Zelonky moved with his family back to Los Angeles (his parents are now divorced). He eventually enrolled in the Van Nuys High School Performing Arts Magnet.

Zelonky won an “outstanding musicianship” award from Fullerton College while performing in his school’s elite jazz ensemble. He portrayed Lumiere, the candelabra, in the magnet’s production of “Beauty and the Beast,” and he choreographed a 12-minute piece based on the Harry Potter books, all while snagging roles in a Lifetime movie titled “Mommy, I Didn’t Do It” and playing the second male lead in L.A.’s Chromolume Theatre’s play “Zanna Don’t,” set in an alternative universe where homosexuality is the norm.

Zelonky also performed in a cantorial concert at his synagogue, Temple Ahavat Shalom, and during a trip to Washington, D.C., with his confirmation class, he lobbied his congressman, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), on behalf of people with mental illnesses.                                                       

Zelonky said he has suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) since he was a small child. “I remember having to do rituals, touching doorknobs and light switches and counting in my head,” he said.

His compulsions disappeared whenever he was onstage, he added. But it was only after he saw a character with OCD on the TV series “Glee” that he sought help through therapy and medication.

His hope is to perform eventually on Broadway and on screen. “I love the process of bringing a character to life, telling a story and working with other actors,” he said.