BWW Review: Theatre Calgary's BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL Shines a Spotlight on Calgary's Talent
Music by Elton John, and Book and Lyrics by Lee Hall, Billy Elliot tells a story of perseverance and hope. Young Billy wants to be a ballet dancer but his poor miner father and brother are against it. With the help of Mrs. Wilkinson and her ballet girl, Billy learns in secret and prepares to take the next steps in order to get out of the small-town life his family survives on. In the midst of the Miner's Strike in 1984 England, Billy learns the importance of community and following your dreams, all told through beautiful dance and award-winning music.
Director Stafford Arima has assembled an incredible team to bring the story to life including Music Direction by Don Horsburg, Lighting Design by Alan Brodie, and Sound Design by Joshua D Reid. Choreographer Yukichi Hattori - a former principal dancer with Alberta Ballet - had the challenge of showing an emotional journey as well as a physical journey to learn ballet that looked and felt natural to these growing, talented dancers. What drew my eye were Billy's solos and the focus on the young performer's face. While I have no doubt of the actor's execution, I missed some of the emotional connection to the steps and I wonder if that was due to inaccessibility with the choreography. As with all elements of musical theatre, I look for the story in each movement and sometimes, I was just watching (gorgeous) dancing with nothing else behind it. The rest of the show is so high energy; I danced and clapped along, and truly enjoyed watching the cast of 24 filling the stage with vogue, and tap, and ballet. What incredible stamina.
Scott Reid's set and projection design were well utilized, allowed for seamless transitions, and brought me into the world of Billy Elliot without overwhelming the stage. I did have trouble following some newscasts projected on the textured wall but I understood the context and I don't know that I overly missed it. They made for excellent transitions while the cast changed one of their 150 costumes. Designer Cory Sincennes has absolutely nailed it. With a combination of period-appropriate uniforms and outlandish drag-inspired costumes, there was not a shoe or tutu out of place on that stage. And with some incredibly fast transitions, I can't imagine what their backstage must look like (actually, I can).
Because of the intensity of the leading role, there are two boys cast in the titular role of the ballet prodigy: Dex Drewitz and Rhett Udsen. I was in the audience for Udsen's opening night performance, which also marks his Theatre Calgary debut. I was blown away by his talent, and I can't wait to see what maturity and experience will do to his career. Not only spending so much time on stage, but going through song after song with stamina and control is impressive. Bravo!
Comprising the rest of the Elliot family are Dennis Robert Dubbin as Jackie Elliot, Kathryn Kerbes as Grandma and Alex Smith as Tony Elliot. As the angry and rebellious older brother, Smith played an always aggressive and ready to pounce version of Tony that made an excellent contrast to the light and flightiness of Kerbes' Grandma - who's song was delightfully beautiful and kooky at once. Dubbin's performance as Jackie Elliot nearly brought me to tears. His rendition of Deep Into the Ground was heartbreaking, and his journey to accepting his son and standing up for his dream is one I wish we saw more often.
Billy's mentor, Mrs. Wilkinson is a character I didn't expect to fall in love with but from the moment she stumbled through the door, I was hooked. Played by Caitlynne Medrek, Mrs. Wilkinson is not the most maternal of ballet instructors but she is the first one to believe in Billy and her ability to fight back when the world says 'no' is a heart-warming story. Medrek was incredibly well suited for the role, with mounds of energy and her fair-share of dancing ability; she made for a fierce companion to the budding artists.
Mrs. Wilkinson's Ballet Girls are made up of a group of young dancers from all over Calgary: Jaya Del Greco, Robyn Neumann, Julianne Smith, Kelsey Woodard, Nicole Woodard, and Siena Yee. Along with each girl having a name, it's clear each performer created personalities and stories I could follow throughout the show. I loved watching their facial expressions - especially when they were dancing.
The Adult Ensemble is a wonderful mix of emerging and established artists in the community who shared their immense vocal and dance talent with the Max Bell Theatre including: Kevin Corey as George, Jillian Hannah as Clipboard Lady, Fionn Laird as Posh Boy, Glen Mills as Mr. Braithwaite (understudy), Katelyn Morishita as Lesley, Steven Morton as Miner, Scott Olynek as Posh Dad, Michelle Rawlings as Dead Mom, Joel Schaefer as Mr. Braithwaite, and Connor Suart as Big Davey. Two standouts for me were Amber Bissonnette (particularly as Young Grandma) and Ryan Maschke (as Older Billy). Both took to the stage to expand Billy's story through dance in such beautiful form. The utter focus and control of Billy dancing with his older self, and the grace of grandma recalling her lost youth, were simply amazing.
Watching everyone during the number titled Expressing Yourself was a treat but Maschke's facial expressions and the way he lights up when he's on stage made it all the more entertaining. Though nothing could top the absolute shine of Mar-Émile Fallu's performance of Michael Coffrey. He absolutely stole the show with his campy energy and more grounded moments of fear and sadness. I was in love from moment one.
Not only did Stafford Arima assemble a cast of incredibly talented performers from around Calgary, but he has created a show that I hope speaks to many audience members about the importance of the arts, pursuing one's passion, and how community can make anything happen. I was blown away by the electricity on that stage and it is a must-see.
Billy Elliot the Musical is playing at the Max Bell Theatre until May 12th and tickets can be purchased at: https://www.theatrecalgary.com/2018-19/billy-elliot