BWW Reviews: Ogunquit Playhouse Mounts Regional Premiere of BILLY ELLIOT
Assembling a stellar cast and creative team, the Ogunquit Playhouse has mounted a powerful production of the Elton John-Lee Hall 2005 musical, Billy Elliot. Based on the 2000 film, both directed by Stephen Daldry with original choreography by Peter Darling, Billy Elliot movingly tells the story of a Yorkshire working class boy who discovers his unlikely passion and talent for ballet and who must win his coal miner father's acceptance for his chosen vocation.
Set against the background of the bitter 1984 mining strike which pitted the workers' life and death struggle against Margaret Thatcher's push to close the mines, Billy's discovery of his artistic gift becomes his ticket not only to self-fulfillment, but also to escape from his family's bleak existence.
Sir Elton John's dark and propulsive score - part rock, part "legit" - quotes folk and classical idioms as well, while Lee Hall's book and lyrics bring to life the colorful characters who populate this small British town. Music Director Ana Flavia Zuim conducts the seven-person offstage orchestra with confidence and aplomb.
The Ogunquit Playhouse has put together a production marked by brilliant choreography, a strong adult and children's ensemble of singer-actor-dancers, and compelling direction by BT McNicholl, who had directed on Broadway. McNicholl sets a taut pace and moves his performers briskly through the accelerating dramatic tension of the plot. He handles the large ensembles effectively, allowing the actors time to create individualized characters in the crowd, and he displays a particularly deft hand in working with the fifteen-person children's ensemble.
Adam Pelty recreates and adapts the original choreography with imagination and flair. He demonstrates wit in staging Mrs. Wilkinson's ballet classes, creates electric tension in the miners' angry numbers, and allows Billy's balletic talent to develop visibly throughout the course of the play, making his Act II pas de deux, complete with aerial acrobatics, absolutely breathtaking.
To the title role, young Noah Parets brings a dazzling dance technique, vocal heft, and a winsome acting presence. A veteran of the national tour, Parets seems, like Billy, born to dance and to inhabit the stage with his mesmerizing talent.
Armand Schultz makes Billy's father an empathetic character - all repressed frustration and anger in Act I and gradual, grudging comprehension and acceptance in Act II. His touching solo, Deep in the Ground in which he remembers his late wife by singing her favorite song through an alcoholic haze, is a defining moment. Anastasia Barzee projects just the right blend of brashness and tenderness as Mrs. Wilkinson. Anthony Festa as Billy's older brother Tony, plays the quintessential angry young man with a feline magnetism. Dale Soules makes a sympathetically daft, yet wise, Grandma; Elysia Jordan is a gentle, radiant apparition of Billy's deceased mother, and Joel Blum is a blustering, generous George.
The rest of the ensemble shines with several special cameos created by Stephen Hanna as the Older Billy/Scottish dancer, Greg McCormick Allen as the tipsy accompanist, Mr. Braithwaite, David Benoit as a kindhearted Big Davey. Among the children's ensemble little Henry Barzee Asnes is adorably innocent, and Alec Shiman is a standout as Michael, Billy's cross-dressing friend - at once cocky, vulnerable, brave, and ultimately unable to escape as Billy does.
Campbell Baird's set makes expressive use of Ogunquit's wide stage. Baird creates the iconography of the gritty Yorkshire town with ever-present, looming silhouettes of smokestacks, grimy, dun-colored brick row houses, and massive laundry lines. On occasion, however, one has the sense of too much scenery, especially in the large, lumbering interior rolling units, and though the crew manages the scene shifts gracefully, one wonders what effect a more open stage with a few stylized elements might have achieved.
Jack Mehler's lighting design contributes effectively to the oppressiveness of the setting, creating some striking effects with the miners' helmets and the factory lights which burn with ominous intensity. Dustin Cross' costumes capture the working class 80s ambiance, while Eric Martin's sound design nimbly balances the offstage orchestra with the onstage actors.
Billy Elliot is an inspiring personal and political tale that reaches out to audiences with its messages about parenting, discovering one's potential, and embracing the arts as an avenue of self-expression and spiritual fulfillment. The Ogunquit Playhouse's first-ever re-imagining eloquently addresses these themes, letting the excellence of its production serve as testimony to the liberating power of theatre, music, and dance.
Photos Courtesy of the Ogunquit Playhouse