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BWW Review: Playhouse on the Square Gives BILLY ELLIOT a Chance to Dance

BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL, the season opener at Playhouse on the Square, must have a special place in the hearts of performers, as it resonates on so many levels - levels that many of those performers themselves have doubtless experienced. When one blessed with talent (or at least the desire to belong to a world inhabited by the talented) must choose between a world of practicality and a world of art, a clash - with family, community - is an unavoidable result. (A CHORUS LINE, anyone?) The 2000 film version was partly inspired by A.J. Cronin's THE STARS LOOK DOWN, in which such a genius-lit soul struggles to rise above the grim, despairing prospect of disappearing into the darkness and dangers of a coal mine. There are, too, other examples - "Morgan," the poetic protégé of "Miss Moffatt" in Emlyn Williams' play THE CORN IS GREEN; the sensitive "Huw" avoiding the dark fate of his father and brothers in Richard Llewellyn's HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY. In all these works, accepting one's expected "role" in the community is tantamount to surrendering the soul in return for something to eat. In fact, what better contrast could there be? Descending the mines could well suggest a kind of burial, not only of the body, but the soul and spirit.

While the 2000 film version is set during the UK miners' strike in the 1980's (and isn't "life threatening" as it is in the Cronin or Llewellyn works), the choice made by young Billy to trade in those boxing gloves for ballet shoes gives one pause for reflection. I always found Billy's father the most interesting character in the piece; initially clueless and dismissive of what matters to Billy, his is the character that must accept, put aside previous notions about, and learn to stand up for his son's burgeoning desires and talent. While other relationships in the play are important (the nurturing "Mrs. Wilkinson," gay fellow-dancing aspirant "Michael"), that between father and son is most pronounced; and who, in "leaving the nest" and asserting his/her individuality, has not experienced such a moment? It's universal, and it doesn't matter whether it's a question of donning ballet shoes or choosing a college?

Lee Hall, who wrote the acclaimed screenplay, was wisely engaged to provide the book and lyrics, and - in an inspired move - Elton John (whose own personal early struggles must surely have caused him to feel a strong affinity for the work) provided the emotionally imbued songs. Overseeing this production is Geoffrey Goldberg (who also helmed last year's highly successful MARY POPPINS for Playhouse); he has both directed and choreographed with sensitivity and skill - the play works as drama as well as a showcase for some fine dancing; and as the young "Billy," Benjamin Cheng convincingly portrays the growth of the protagonist, both as person and as dancer. Indeed, the first few times we see him in dance class surrounded by fledgling dancers, he fails to stand out. With subtlety, however, as the dance interludes continue, we can see him grow into a confident and agile performer (in the "He Could Be a Star" number, which pairs him with an older version of himself, the expert Travis Bradley, he proves to himself - and his father - the potential that Mrs. Wilkinson has seen in him). (I kept thinking of the "Louise" character in GYPSY, a kind of odd parallel to Billy, who will finally be given a chance to "sing out." It would be rather interesting to present both plays in a theatre season.)

The drama of BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL is populated by diverse and interesting characters. On the home front, the widowed Mr. Elliot (the ever-dependable Michael Detroit, pressured and pressuring here) is preoccupied with not only the impending strike, but also the difficult task of being both "mother" and "father" to both Billy and his (possibly resentful) older brother "Tony" (newcomer Dane van Brocklin makes an impressive debut here). There's also the somewhat dotty "Grandma" (Jeanna Juleson manages to be both touching and amusing as she grapples with both reality and her breakfast roll), with whom Billy has some tender moments. (In "Grandma's Song," we are reminded just how difficult it is sometimes to accomplish one's dreams. It's important to contrast what eventually happens with Billy.) However, there are also three other characters with significant roles -- the unapologetically gay "Michael" (a sweetly charming Seth Judice); the seasoned (and resigned) dance instructor Mrs. Wilkinson (cigarette-puffing Kim Sanders), who has accepted her failure to step beyond the boundaries by which she is presently trapped; and - in an interesting and imaginary role - Billy's own "Mom," who evidently lived a life of sacrifice and would have done anything to help further his dreams.

While it's easy enough to see this as Billy's story, we need to pay attention to the sacrifices that others are willing to make in order to provide a foundation on which his dreams can build. Miner "Big Davey" (Christopher Cotton) and other friends of the family can scarcely afford to shell out money to curtail the Elliot family's expenses; Mrs. Wilkinson has managed to sacrifice her own time and energy to help propel Billy forward; Mr. Elliot and Tony, in losing Billy, will also be losing a part of their wife/mother. In short, there's real emotional resonance here. (When Mrs. Wilkinson sends Billy out of her life at the end of the play, I was reminded of Bette Davis' "Miss Moffatt" bidding farewell to her star pupil "Morgan," Oscar-nominated John Dall at the end of Irving Rapper's 1945 film version of Emlyn Williams' THE CORN IS GREEN.)

Music Director Thomas Bergstig and his musicians do justice to Elton John's effective score (I love the "nod" to Cronin with the opening number, "The Stars Look Down," a well-deserved homage to the source of inspiration). The suitably downbeat set (all corrugated metal and grimy milieu) is by Mark Guirguis. With a number of familiar players in the cast (Lorraine Cotton, Mark Gill, Donna Lappin, Dave Landis, to name a few). Through September 6.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)