Howland native hangs with the stars

Special to the Tribune Chronicle Howland native Mishay Petronelli, left, is shown with star Hugh Jackman on the set of "The Greatest Showman."

“The Greatest Showman” features a local show woman, and Hugh Jackman is only one of her famous co-stars.

Howland native Mishay Petronelli worked for seven months as a dancer, singer and actor on the film, which has grossed more than $120 million in theaters since opening Dec. 20.

Jackman stars in the movie about circus impresario P.T. Barnum, and Petronelli plays an albino, one of the characters who makes up the freak show in Barnum’s circus.

“We’re dancing, singing and acting through the entire movie,” Petronelli said. “None of the lines I had made it (into the final cut), but I am in multiple scenes and ended up getting to do an improv acting scene with Hugh Jackman.”

Petronelli, 31, said Jackman was a joy to work with on the set.

“Oh my gosh, he’s the Wolverine,” she said, referring to Jackman’s superhero character in the “X-Men” films. “I’ve worked with so many celebrities, I know to stay your distance, but he wanted to be around us. He made a point of saying ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ to each of us every day. He’s so humble, so talented.”

Every Friday, Jackman would buy lottery tickets for all of the cast and crew, and he would keep everyone energized during long days and nights on the set.

“There were times we shot all night, and the dancers were so exhausted, but the director needed energy. Hugh Jackman would throw out a couple of Wolverine screams and all of the sudden it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re going to do this.'”

When Petronelli says she’s been around a lot of celebrities, she’s not exaggerating. She spent the beginning of 2018 in Los Angeles working on a live episode of the Paramount Network’s “Lip Sync Battle” featuring Neil Patrick Harris, Taraji P. Henson, Hailee Steinfeld and Laverne Cox performing songs by Michael Jackson.

After shooting wrapped on “The Greatest Showman” last spring, Petronelli was a dancer on Janet Jackson’s “State of the World” tour, performing in both Cleveland and Pittsburgh. She’s also worked multiple times with superstar Beyonce, serving as an assistant choreographer on her “On the Run” tour, dancing with her in the video for “Haunted” and accompanying her to the 2014 Grammy Awards when Beyonce and husband Jay-Z opened the show with “Drunk in Love.”

It’s an impressive resume for someone who didn’t take her first class at Studio L Dance Centre until age 13, a decade after most girls start.

“I was playing catch up,” she said. “I had no training, and they were awesome. They took me under their wing, and I kept trying and doing my best to catch up with everybody.”

Amanda Wolfe-Elampooranar, who frequently traveled with Petronelli to national competitions as one of her teachers at Studio L, said she always went above and beyond in class.

“I always knew there was something special about her,” said Wolfe-Elampooranar, who now lives in Chandler, Ariz. “She always had the work ethic and drive that you don’t see very often, and you can’t teach.”

Petronelli was so devoted to her dance training, she left Howland schools and finished her high school education online, graduating from Warren G. Harding High School in 2005. She moved to New York after graduation and struggled for dance work her first years there. She said there was no one “big break” that launched her career.

“It was just constantly trying to break through. I’m a perfectionist and really hard on myself and work myself so hard to get what I want or deserve. One job leads to another and another, word of mouth, lots of connections … Breaking through is just never giving up.”

Petronelli’s parents are deceased, and her siblings live outside of the area so she doesn’t get back home much, but she enjoyed getting to perform for friends and family on the Jackson tour.

That tour’s schedule kept her from participating in most of the events planned around the opening of “The Greatest Showman,” but she was able to attend its New York premiere, which fell on a day off. She’s seen herself on television and in music videos before, but being on a movie screen was different.

“I’m kind of my biggest critic. I can’t stand watching myself. I wanted to look away, but at the same time, I couldn’t stop watching. I couldn’t believe I’d done such a big project.”