BWW Review: BILLY ELLIOT at Goodspeed Musicals
Sometimes, being unafraid to be yourself can be the key to unlocking your true potential. Never has that been truer than in the story of BILLY ELLIOT, currently playing (through November 24) at the Goodspeed Opera House. In this, its final production of the season, Goodspeed brings to life the hit musical (with music by Elton John and book/lyrics by Lee Hall) about a young boy in a coal-mining town in northern England in the 1980's, as he discovers a love (and gift) for dance. The result is an exciting, touching, and thrilling experience filled with stellar performances, inspired staging, and a pitch perfect interpretation of the trying times in which the play is set.
BILLY ELLIOT (based on the movie of the same name) tells the story of young Billy Elliot (alternately played by Taven Blanke and Liam Vincent Hutt) who lives in County Durham in Northern England during the mid 1980's - a trying time for the country, with a miners strike looming in response to the policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and a town poised to lose so much, should the coal mine have to close. Billy, late one day for a boxing lesson, is reluctantly pulled into a ballet class that takes place in the same hall, taught by the gregarious Mrs. Wilkinson (Michelle Aravena). Billy soon discovers that not only does he enjoy dancing much more than boxing, he is actually good at it - good enough to inspire his teacher and fellow students to support his training. When Billy's widowed father (Sean Hayden) and brother, Tony (Gabriel Sidney Brown) find out about Billy's extracurricular activities, they take a hard stance, influenced by their stereotypically male expectations and the stress they are under due to the miners' strike. But Billy isn't without his supporters - besides Mrs. Wilkinson, who takes young Billy under her wing, Billy's carefree friend Michael (Jon Martens) and his forgetful Grandma (Barbara Marineau) both help Billy realize what it means to "Express Yourself" and the power of following your dreams.
To be honest, I wasn't sure how BILLY ELLIOT would work on the Goodspeed stage. Having seen the Broadway production and subsequent tour, the big, dance-filled musical is typically produced on a much larger stage. Having seen so many productions at the Goodspeed where they worked miracles with the space, I should never have doubted. BILLY ELLIOT works extremely well in the space. Director Gabriel Barre has chosen to position the opera house as a stand in for the Union Hall, immersing the audience in the action (including pre-show and before the beginning of the second act). Mr. Barre utilizes every inch of the space, resulting in a musical that feels much bigger than it is. The music by Elton John is exciting, catchy and tuneful, and Lee Hall's book captures the feeling of the time and location perfectly.
The cast for BILLY ELLIOT is in a word, fantastic. To pull off this show you have to have a loveable and insanely talented young actor for the title role. And Taven Blanke, who I had the pleasure of seeing perform in the role, checks all of the boxes and then some. His acting is great (pulling off the challenging, northern England dialect), his singing is solid, and his dancing is breathtaking. Seeing him evolve from unsure young boy to inspired dancer is thrilling to watch. This is especially true in his two tour-de-force numbers, "Angry Dance" and "Electricity", where I was shocked the audience didn't leap to its feet upon conclusion. I am not sure what this young actor plans to do in life, but dancing and performing seems certainly in the cards. Helping tell Billy's tale is a supporting cast that is equally exciting to watch. Michelle Aravena is great as the hard-edged-with-a-soft-heart Mrs. Wilkinson. Sean Hayden is the perfect mix of sadness and anger as Billy's Dad and Gabriel Sidney Brown is quite convincing as his hotheaded, but caring brother Tony. Jon Martens is very funny as Billy's friend, Michael, and their friendship leads to a number of touching moments between the actors. Finally, as Billy's Grandma, Barbara Marineau does a great job delivering a performance that is equal parts funny and sad. The ensemble are all very good, with a few standout performances (including a beautiful dance performed by Nick Silverio as Older Billy).
In terms of creative, Walt Spangler's scenic design works extremely well, bringing to life the Union Hall setting while retaining enough space for the dance numbers to shine. His larger than life Margaret Thatcher puppet was used to maximum effect on the two-story set. Jen Caprio's costumes are period-perfect and reflect the working-class esthetic. Jay Hilton and Jason Kanrowitz's Sound and Lighting design, respectively, support the performers quite well. The use of a solo spotlight controlled by a young cast member at times did a great job implying that what we were seeing could be happening in the union hall setting. Michael O'Flaherty, in his 28th season as Goodspeed's music director, does a great job with the energetic score.
Overall, Goodspeed's production of BILLY ELLIOT is engaging, uplifting, and heartwarming. It is the kind of show that you can't help leaving with a smile on your face, a song in your heart, and an irresistible urge to follow your own dreams - inspired by the story of this remarkable and talented young man.
BILLY ELLIOT runs at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT through November 24, 2019. Curtain times are Wednesday at 2:00p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m. (with select performances at 2:00 p.m.), Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (with select performances at 6:30 p.m.). For more information, call 860-873-8668 or visit goodspeed.org. The Goodspeed Opera House is located at 6 Main Street, East Haddam, CT.
Mid photo 1: "Solidarity forever." The cast of Goodspeed Musicals' Billy Elliot The Musical, now playing at The Goodspeed through November 24. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.
Mid photo 3: "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher!" The cast of Goodspeed Musicals' Billy Elliot The Musical, now playing at The Goodspeed through November 24. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.
Bottom photo: "Together we are one..." The cast of Goodspeed Musicals' Billy Elliot The Musical, now playing at TheGoodspeed through November 24. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.