BILLY ELLIOT Rises and Shines in Boston
Based on the Universal Pictures/Studio Canal Film; music by Elton John; book and lyrics by Lee Hall; director, Stephen Daldry; touring associate director, Justin Martin; choreographer, Peter Darling; touring associate choreographer, Kathryn Dunn; set design, Ian MacNeil; costume design, Nicky Gillibrand; lighting design, Rick Fisher; sound design, Paul Arditti; musical supervision and orchestrations, Martin Koch; tour music supervision, David Chase
Billy, Kylend Hetherington (press performance), alternates with Ben Cook, Zach Manske, and Noah Parets; Mrs. Wilkinson, Janet Dickinson; Dad, Rich Hebert; Grandma, Patti Perkins; Tony, Cullen R. Titmas; George, Joel Blum; Michael, Cameron Clifford (press performance), alternates with, Ethan Major; Debbie, Samantha Blaire Cutler; Small Boy, Cal Alexander; Big Davey, Mitch Poulos; Lesley, Sasha Ely-Judkins; Scab/Posh Dad, Tim Funnell; Mum, Kat Hennessey; Mr. Braithwaite, Job Christenson; Tracey Atkinson, Regan Mason Haley; Older Billy/Scottish Dancer, Maximilien A. Baud; Mr. Wilkinson, Joel Newsome; Pit Official, David Light; Postman, Damien Brett; Tall Boy/Posh Boy, Ethan Major (press performance), alternates with Cameron Clifford; Accordion Specialty, Job Christenson; Clipboard Woman, Cara Kjellman
Performances and Tickets:
Presented by Lexus Broadway in Boston now through August 19, Boston Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston. Tickets start at $33 and are available at the Opera House Box Office, through Ticketmaster at 1-800-982-2787, or online at www.BroadwayinBoston.com.
The national tour of Billy Elliot, the exhilarating Tony Award-winning musical now at the Opera House in Boston through August 19, is a splendid example of how a hit Broadway show should take to the road. With Stephen Daldry’s potent direction and Peter Darling’s evocative choreography still in tact, this production is every bit as moving as the original – even better in several instances. A scaled-down set, free of anachronistic hydraulics and oversized flown in fantasy props, puts the focus right where it belongs: on the clash between striking British coal miners and their hostile government and a young boy’s gift for ballet that lifts their hopes and inspires solidarity in support of his dreams.
Billy Elliot, set in Northeast England in 1984 during what the creative team calls “one of the darkest times in modern British history,” fuses the harsh and often violent world of a dying mining community with the determination and hope that one boy has of breaking free through dance. Originally scoffed at by the townsfolk and then forbidden by his impoverished and widowed father to pursue his dreams, Billy later wins them all over when they come to understand just what his extraordinary gift means to him – and to the community. With no hope left for their own futures, the coal miners come to live vicariously through Billy’s.
Since Billy is the driving force of the musical – he is onstage practically non-stop – a quartet of ridiculously talented teenagers rotates in the role. One of the four, Noah Parets, is a Sharon, Massachusetts native. On press night, Kylend Hetherington of Michigan played the role. He was quite simply stunning.
In addition to being an accomplished dancer, Hetherington is a very fine singer and actor. He quite charmingly reveals the intelligent wit stirring beneath Billy’s awkward exterior. He expresses a combination of embarrassment and intrigue when he discovers that ballet shoes seem to fit him better than boxing gloves. He also travels in that adolescent grey area between childhood and adulthood with such emotional honesty that his yearning for cradling one minute and independence the next is palpable. And, when he dances, it is, to borrow from Elton John’s most impressive musical score to date, “Electricity.”
During the climactic “Angry Dance,” which comes on the heels of his father’s refusal to let him audition for the Royal Ballet School, Hetherington’s Billy is a whirling dervish of raw frustration. He infuses every move with a thwarted seething passion, his feet violently tapping out his anger while his body contorts with a primal desire that he is unable to express in words. Later, when trying to describe to his father what it feels like when he dances ballet, he elegantly extends, soars, and pirouettes with a grace and power that are thrilling.
As Billy’s hard-working but conflicted father, Rich Hebert has his finest scene when he finally “gets” how gifted his son is. When he finally watches Billy dance, first uncomfortably, then appreciatively, his fretted and weary face slowly melts from uncertainty to awe, taking on a deeply loving glow that shows pride, understanding, and tearful joy. The moment is tremendously tender and uplifting. It propels Billy Elliot forward and brings depth to Hebert’s heretofore monochromatically unsympathetic portrayal.
Other splendid performances are turned in by Janet Dickinson as Billy’s world-weary but supportive dance instructor (and surrogate mum) Mrs. Wilkinson; Patti Perkins as his dotty but still influential Grandma; and Cameron Clifford as his exuberant and thoroughly confident, if a bit eccentric, school pal Michael. Their performances are as good, if not better than, those of the original Broadway cast.
Dickinson strikes just the right balance of indifference and amusement as she leads her ragtag group of young ballet students in “Shine.” Later she and a very likable Job Christenson as the dance school accompanist Mr. Braithwaite have a ball encouraging Billy in the lighthearted jazz romp, “Born to Boogie.” Finally, when her efforts to help Billy make something of himself through dance seem to pay off, her joy for him is tinged with an aching sorrow for her own thwarted ambitions. She becomes the ambivalent mother bird reluctantly pushing her chick from the nest.
As Billy’s mentally muddled Grandma, Perkins is a perfect combination of feisty and funny but also a little sad. Her book scenes are laced with sly-like-a-fox befuddlement, but when she sings the lovely ballad, “We’d Go Dancing,” she turns surprisingly wistful and touching. Here she shares with Billy her memories of the few happy moments she enjoyed with her husband in an otherwise abusive 30-plus-year marriage. With crystal clear poetic lucidity, she is letting Billy know that she understands how important an escape dance can be.
As the ebullient misfit Michael, Clifford sheds all inhibitions – and encourages Billy to do the same – in the celebratory “Expressing Yourself,” an infectious song and dance routine that builds into a fabulous vaudeville showstopper complete with shimmer curtains, a tap happy male ensemble, and an arch of proscenium-framing show lights that turns into a megawatt marquee. Clifford takes the stage by storm and basks in his star-making moment. His delight in his idiosyncrasy is contagious.
The real knockout punch in Billy Elliot, however, is delivered by the entire ensemble as disparate groups alternately clash and come together in “Solidarity.” Coal miners and policemen in riot gear square off against each other violently, each faction united in opposition to the other, while the young girls in Mrs. Wilkinson’s ballet class stumble innocently through their exercises in an effort to dance as one. Billy finds himself caught in the middle of all three, dodging SWAT shields and jumping away from flailing arms and feet. Simultaneously the choreography shows the uniformity within each group and the dramatic discord among them. The staging is a stroke of genius and makes the juxtaposed brutality and beauty in Billy Elliot cohesive.
Sets, lights, costumes, and sound work effectively to create an atmosphere of impoverished bleakness broken by the occasional colorful glimmer of fantasy and hope. Most impressive is the use of a black backdrop, shadows, and the lights on the coal miners’ hats to create the illusion of an elevator slowly lowering the workers below ground. In vivid contrast is Billy’s dream of flying while dancing to a contemporary musical arrangement of Swan Lake for his Dad.
The 10 Tony Awards that Billy Elliot earned on Broadway were well deserved indeed. The national tour, in Boston through August 19 only, has every bit as bright a shine.
PHOTOS BY KYLE FROMAN: Kylend Hetherington as Billy; Kylend Hetherington; Rich Hebert as Dad and Kylend Hetherington; Janet Dickinson as Mrs. Wilkinson, Kylend Hetherington, and ensemble; Kylend Hetherington