BWW REVIEW: BILLY ELLIOT Shines at Ogunquit Playhouse
Book and lyrics by Lee Hall; music by Elton John; originally directed in London by Stephen Daldry; choreography based on the original by Peter Darling; director, BT McNicholl; choreographer, Adam Pelty; music director, Ana Flavia Zuim; set designer, Campbell Baird; costume designer, Dustin Cross; lighting designer, Jack Mehler; sound designer/engineer, Eric Martin; sound consultant, Nathaniel Putnam; hair and make-up designer, Britt Griffith; production stage manager, Nikki Lint; technical director, Geof Dolan; dialect coach, Lester Thomas Shane
Billy, Noah Parets (Sam Faulkner at select performances); Mrs. Wilkinson, Anastasia Barzee; Dad, Armand Schultz; Grandma, Dale Soules; Tony, Anthony Festa; George, Joel Blum; Michael, Alec Shiman; Debbie, Julia Yameen; Small Boy, Henry Barzee Asnes; Tall Boy/Posh Boy (on certain performances), Tyler Brown, Sam Faulker, Noah Parets; Big Davey, David Benoit; Lesley, Jenny Holahan; Scab/Posh Dad, Mason Roberts; Mum, Elysia Jordan; Mr. Braithwaite, Greg McCormick Allen; Older Billy/Scottish Dancer, Stephen Hanna; Clipboard Woman, Amanda Bruton
Performances and Tickets:
Now through July 26, Ogunquit Playhouse, 10 Main Street (Route 1), Ogunquit, Maine; tickets priced from $39-$89 available online at www.ogunquitplayhouse.org or by calling the Box Office at 207-646-5511.
What director BT McNicholl, choreographer Adam Pelty, and the remarkable cast and crew of BILLY ELLIOT at the Ogunquit Playhouse on the southern coast of Maine have accomplished with just nine days of rehearsal is nothing short of a miracle. They have mounted an elaborate, intricate, and profoundly moving production of Lee Hall and Sir Elton John's inspirational Tony Award-winning musical about a young boy who quite literally dances his way to freedom, choosing ballet over boxing to escape the repression and poverty of his coal-mining family and dead-end Yorkshire community.
Based on the successful British film of the same name, BILLY ELLIOT is set in Northeast England in 1984 during what the creative team calls "the most bitter industrial dispute in British history." It fuses the harsh and often violent world of a dying mining town 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.
Ogunquit's creative team has had to rethink the technically complex Broadway production to fit Ogunquit's intimate 700-seat theater. In so doing, they have actually improved upon the original by making it less about the spectacle and more about the heart. Every wince, wink, tear and twitch is visible in this smaller venue, enabling the audience to feel every raw emotion that pulses through the music and dance. 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.
Since Billy is the driving force of the musical - he is onstage practically non-stop - the role requires a young man of remarkable talent and charisma. Such is Noah Parets (seen at the reviewed performance), reprising his role from the first national tour. A brilliant dancer, singer and actor, Parets ably navigates that adolescent grey area between childhood and adulthood, infusing his performance with all the grief, anger, hopes and fears of a boy battling mightily to become a man.
Whether seething with primal rage during the "Angry Dance" or soaring elegantly as he tries to describe to his bewildered father what it feels like when he dances, Parets leaps and pirouettes with thrilling grace and power. As one of the aptly titled songs suggests, it's "Electricity."
As Billy's hard-working but conflicted father, Armand Schultz is stern but also sympathetic. It is evident that he wants only the best for his son, even as he tries to force him into a life that is doomed to bring him unhappiness. When Dad finally sees Billy dance and begins to understand his true gifts, Schultz melts and brings the audience with him.
Other splendid performances are turned in by Anastasia Barzee as Billy's world-weary but supportive dance instructor (and surrogate mum) Mrs. Wilkinson; Dale Soules as his dotty but still influential Grandma; and Alec Shiman as his exuberant and thoroughly confident, if a bit eccentric, school pal Michael. Also notable are Anthony Festa as Billy's frustrated older brother Tony; Joel Blum as the rough and tumble but good-natured boxing coach George; Elysia Jordan as the ghost of Billy's Mum; and Stephen Hanna of the New York City Ballet reprising his Broadway role as Older Billy.
As Mrs. Wilkinson, Barzee 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 Greg McCormick Allen as the dance school accompanist Mr. Braithwaite have a ball encouraging Billy in the lighthearted disco 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, Soules 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 cross-dressing best friend Michael, Shiman 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 and a tap happy female ensemble. Shiman takes the stage by storm and basks in his star-making moment. His delight in his particular idiosyncrasy is contagious. His love for Billy is both supportive and tender.
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 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 Billy clubs 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 meshes the juxtaposed brutality and beauty in BILLY ELLIOT into a cohesive whole. At the number's finale, Billy emerges confidently from the midst of the melee. He has discovered who he is, separate from all of them.
Sets, lights, costumes, and sound work effectively to create an atmosphere of impoverished bleakness broken by the occasional colorful glimmer of fantasy and hope. Sets by Campbell Baird suggest the dingy claustrophobia of a tightknit mining and mill town while affording the room needed for a large ensemble to break loose in dance. Jack Mehler's lighting creates moody transitions between the miners' sooty reality and Billy's soaring emotions. Also contributing to the authenticity of time and place is the wonderful work of dialect coach Lester Thomas Shane. He is to be commended for working with the cast to make their thick Geordie accents intelligible to the New England ear.
Ogunquit is one of the first regional theaters in the U.S. to produce BILLY ELLIOT. It is a major undertaking, one that few companies are likely to pursue. By all means, travel the 75 minutes from Boston up Route 1 to see it between now and July 26. It's unlikely that a production of this caliber will be mounted regionally again anytime soon.