A motherless child trades boxing for ballet – sigh. At first glance, the only thing missing from the uplifting production “Billy Elliot the Musical,” is a cuddly dog. It has all the right stuff: talented kids who can really sing, dance, and act, little tykes in tutus, a grizzled grandmother, and a lonely boy who overcomes his rotten luck. Still, this musical is not intended for youngsters because of serious themes and salty language.
The role of Billy is the core of the show, and four handsome actors alternate in the production on view at the Civic Theater through May 5th. I enjoyed two on one night, due to unfortunate circumstances. A sharp Mitchell Tobin suffered an injury in the first act, and a larger-framed Noah Parets had to leap into the role in the second half. Both actors furthered the idea that Billy was an angel trapped in a dysfunctional, dangerous world.
The setting is Durham, England during the Miners Strike of 1984. By chance, or divine intervention, Billy ends up in a ballet class. Janet Dickenson plays the loveable nicotine fueled teacher Mrs. Wilkinson, who struts about in ghastly 1980s dance garb. Wow, those neon leg warmers. Billy meets her in secret and becomes a super dancer in a matter of months. Despite hysterical objections from his father (played by Rich Herbert), and the whole damn town, Billy goes on to the Royal Ballet School.
If you go, don’t read too much into the idea of Billy fighting for ballet, and miners fighting for the union. This is a musical, adapted from a film, and symbolism is flimsy. Just enjoy.
The dance audition process is a treat for viewers. Equally so, are most of the songs – book and lyrics by Lee Hall, music by Elton John – though, some are ho-hum. Unlike the Lion King tunes, you won’t be humming these out loud. Peter Darling’s choreography incorporates balletic leaps and catchy tap sequences. There’s even an aerial stunt with Billy young and all grown. Still, you won’t find heart-throbbing ballet here. (Leave that to City Ballet down the street at the Spreckels this weekend). Sets by Ian MacNeil swivel and pull out like giant dresser drawers to create Billy’s drab abode, as well as the red-draped theater of his dreams.
Saavy theater buffs will appreciate the chain-smoking cast, kick-arse orchestra, and gritty counter-story. The recent demise of the “Iron Lady” gives key sections extra punch.
Several women in row T were thrilled that the song “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher” hadn’t been deleted from the program. There was uncertainty because Thatcher died on April 8th, just a few weeks ago. As Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990, Thatcher put an end to mining in England. Miners hated her anti-union stance. The musical does a fine job explaining the street violence and politics of the time. Striking miners (with real bodies and bellies) shouted, “We all celebrate today ‘cause it’s one day closer to your death!” Adding more fuel to the fire, a giant inflatable Thatcher rose up behind them, her talon-like fingers clawing overhead. When Billy’s boxing coach criticized his punches, he said “I’ve seen more life in Margaret Thatcher’s knickers!”
While Dorothy had Toto, and Annie had Sandy, poor Billy had Michael. Jake Kitchin gave a believable performance as Michael, Billy’s only friend, an amazingly honest cross-dressing homosexual. Kitchin (who alternates with Sam Poon) almost stole the show in “Expressing Yourself,” along with Billy and the cast.
The silvery women in row T kept asking “what did he say?” He said ballet, but it sounded like something else.
Americans may have a hard time with British slang too. I’ve heard that some productions include a slang dictionary in the program. This one did not, and I did not have the guts to chime in when one of the ladies asked about Billy’s use of the terms “Ya wanker” and “poofter.” I instead deferred to a relaxed young man who proudly shared simple one-word definitions. The ladies in row T snickered and eventually stifled themselves. They didn’t want to miss any part of the dialogue, no matter how foul or distorted.