BWW Reviews: The MUNY Opens with a Dazzling Production of BILLY ELLIOT
Another great St. Louis tradition continues this summer with the start of the MUNY's 96th season. The opening show is Billy Elliot the Musical, and there are some absolutely electric moments to be found here. Adapted from the excellent film of the same name, the story follows a young boy who would rather dance in the ballet than take boxing lessons, drawing the ire of a strict father who's coping with the loss of his wife, and the possible loss of his livelihood due to the current politics of the time. The story is set in the early 1980's during the time that union-busting Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was in power, and personally orchestrating the swift decline of a once thriving British coal industry. Despite this rather dire backdrop, this is an inspirational show that's well worth seeing under the stars in Forest Park.
A strong cast should be congratulated for their fine work, especially Tade Biesinger who lights up the stage with his considerable talent and charms as Billy. Daniel Oreskes is also very good as Billy's stern father. Emily Skinner appeals as Mrs. Wilkinson, the ballet teacher who manages to welcome Billy into an otherwise female ballet class. Additional support is provided by: Patti Perkins as Billy's senile Grandma; Molly Garner as Billy's deceased Mum; Ben Nordstrom as Billy's older brother Tony; Steve Isom as George; Michael Harp as Billy's amusing friend Michael ("Expressing Yourself" offers up a lively duet for the pair); and, Maria Knasel as Mrs. Wilkinson's daughter, Debbie.
Steven Minning's direction is solid, and Alison Levenberg does a very nice job of recreating the original choreography, which is the real star of the show here. Robert Mark Morgan's gritty scenic design neatly mirrors the bleak images and mood presented in Rob Denton's videos to enhance the overall atmosphere.
Broadway choreographer Peter Darling has been quoted as saying that Billy Elliot is "very much a musical, not a ballet", but he's doing himself a disservice with those comments, because it's those moments, like "The Angry Dance", when the play truly comes to life and generates sparks. When it relies on the contributions of Elton John (who contributes an oddly tuneless score) and Lee Hall (book and lyrics) it falls a bit short of expectations.
The message is aimed squarely at parents who need to believe in their children and encourage them in their dreams and pursuits. Although, those in attendance are cautioned that some of the dialogue may be a bit too coarse for younger children.
There is certainly a lot to like about the MUNY's dazzling and powerful production of Billy Elliot the Musical, and it continues through June 22, 2014.