‘Billy Elliot’ Gets Gritty, Heartwarming Revival at Spreckels—And a Star is Born

If you have a healthy heart, run to see the gritty and heartwarming Billy Elliot the Musical at the Spreckels Theatre, co-presented by San Diego Musical Theater and California Ballet through Oct. 8.

Joy Yandell and Charlie Garton as Mrs. Wilkinson and Billy Elliot in ballet class. Image: Ken Jacques

Be transfixed and inspired by a darling boy chasing a dream, juicy subplots woven throughout a three-hour production that hits home, and witness a star being born.

When the full company of 37 sings “The Stars Look Down,” we are transported to a town in crisis on the eve of the strike in 1984, just before the end England’s coal industry.

We meet Billy Elliot, a handsome 11-year-old with big dreams that collide with his working class family and community.

He’s lost his mum. His father and brother are entrenched in the miner’s strike. His only friend is a gay boy who likes to play dress up.

Billy is asked to stay after his boxing class to give keys to Mrs. Wilkinson, who runs a ballet class.

While his father and brother fight with riot police, Billy takes ballet lessons in secret; his secret upsets his family and the whole bloody town.

From start to finish, the immense talents of Charlie Garton as Billy are jaw dropping.  At age 10, the boy from Del Mar is a serious dancer and actor with star power. He has smart timing and exudes confidence beyond his years in songs and dance numbers, and challenging pirouettes and leaps.

CalBal’s Jared Nelson (who danced with Boston Ballet and choreographed The Great Gatsby for CalBal) gives this youngster demanding and eye-popping sequences to fuel the drama.

When Billy’s father refuses to let him audition for the Royal Ballet School, Billy responds with a slamming “Angry Dance.” He shines and soars overhead in the dreamy Swan Lake pas de deux with his older self (Zachary Guthier).

The booming “Solidarity” number contrasts shrieking girls in tutus and manly miners.

The miners of “Billy Elliot.” Image Ken Jacques

The girls (led by a stomping Cassidy Smith as Debbie Wilkinson) explode with personality and eye-rolling expression.

Layers of subplots are sure to trigger memories and tears, especially if you are a dancer, thespian, parent, grandparent, or gay person. Did I mention battered spouse?

Of all the lessons learned here, supporting your child in their dreams is the pinnacle.

One of the most poignant and funny scenes involves Billy and his chain smoking dance teacher.  Joy Yandell as Mrs. Wilkerson is a joy in leg warmers.

The relationship between a teacher and student can be life-saving, and that bond is celebrated here.

Anyone who has taken dance class will react to the forgotten and caring accompanist, portrayed by a big Donny Gersonde.

Doug Tompos trades anger for support as Billy’s widowed, enlightened dad. Morgan Carberry sends loving chills through the theater as the ghost of Billy’s mum. Alexandra Gonzalez adds bittersweet comedy as Billy’s demented and damaged grandmother. Perhaps most endearing is Billy’s red-haired gay best friend, played by Mackernan Jarman.

Charlie Garton, Machernan Jarman as Billy and Michael. Image Ken Jacques

Billy Elliot isn’t a true story, but Sir Elton John says it is about him, sort of.

He was so moved by the film that he pressed filmmaker Stephen Daldry to let him write a score.

Sir John says his own father failed to understand his aspirations for rock and roll.

That chapter explains the score. Songs by Sir John and Lee Hall are brassy and dark. Billy’s “Angry Dance” is a fusion of rock and jazz, and “Solidarity Forever,” has a powerful march cadence, which fits a North England landscape.

This saga about miners working in the pits has incredible sonic value with 13 musicians and conductor Don LeMaster in the pit.

While national tours of the Broadway show have been sanitized and made perky, director Neil Dale, who grew up in Liverpool, preserves a dark, British tone from the film.  English-born dialect coach Vanessa Dinning keeps the dialogue authentically Durham, which is tricky, but more understandable than Geordie.

There will be discussions about ratings because of language. Christopher Columbus, some adults can’t stand to hear children cuss, much less live as sexual beings. But potent themes about forgiveness, tolerance, and communities keep Billy Elliot in the good human category.

Unlike many Disney musicals, such as Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella, or Snow White, there is no whiff of sex.

It’s a kick to hear children shoot out F-bombs with rounded accents. Slang words like wanker and bugger off make it real.

Mrs. Wilkerson has the best line. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Margo. Margo flippin’ Fonteyn.”

They’re just words, ya cockney shite.

Still, helicopter parents and sensitive types will have kittens, and that’s okay.

Billy Elliot the Musical runs through Oct. 8, 2017, at the Spreckels Theatre. Visit www.sdmt.org.



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