BWW Review: BILLY ELLIOT 'Shines' at the Stratford Festival
For the past several seasons, Stratford's Festival Theatre stage has been home to classic musical theatre productions with catchy tunes that audiences might find themselves humming long after the company had taken its final bow. This season, the musical living on that stage is a little different. It is not a classic from the golden age of broadway, the music, while moving, is likely not that familiar ear worm that you will wake up singing, and the story is as gritty and high stakes as many of the Shakespearean productions we have seen on that stage in recent years. BILLY ELLIOT officially opened to a raucous standing ovation on Tuesday evening, making it clear that Stratford audiences are more than happy to branch out to something a little different.
BILLY ELLIOT was initially performed on the West End in 2005 and on Broadway in 2008. With its book and lyrics by Lee Hall and music by Elton John, original direction by Stephen Daldry, and performances by trios of Billys who alternated the role, it was a huge hit, winning many accolades. Director/Choreographer Donna Feore has reinvented this musical for the Festival Theatre thrust stage-This alone is enough to entice audiences, but the heart, the humour, and the love of dance that Feore and the performers infuse into this production take the appeal of this project far beyond its exciting new staging.
This musical takes place during troubled times in a village in north eastern England in around 1985, as its residents depend mainly on mining for their income and Maggie Thatcher's government has taken over the mining industry. Among the miners are Billy's father Jackie (Dan Chameroy) and brother Tony (Scott Beaudin). It is almost a forgone conclusion that Billy will grow up to be a miner like most of the other men in his village, until a local dance class piques his interest and opens up his mind and heart to the beauty and freedom of dance. During a time when tensions are high during a year long miner strike, dance becomes an escape for Billy. It offers him a new and imaginative way of viewing the world around him, as well as a way to channel his emotions. Slowly, the possibilities Billy sees for his life start to become far less narrow.
First and foremost, this show works because it has a wonderful Billy. Nolen Dubuc captures the young protagonist's innocent curiosity and passion for dance exquisitely. Billy is only eleven, but he has already experienced the loss of his mother, and is living under a constantly tense roof as his father is shut off and grieving, and the family is struggling to make ends meet as Jackie and Tony choose to fight for their rights as miners. Dubuc aptly portrays Billy's quiet strength and resilience. When he finally lets out some of his pent up tension in the "Angry Dance," we see a boy, not yet in control of his own future, trying to break free of the confines of the world he lives in, but feeling helpless in doing so. The scene calls for a child to be shouting angrily, throwing things, and running and jumping and dancing. On paper, this could sound like a tantrum, but Dubuc is able to portray Billy's anguish in a way that it is clear this is so much more than that. This is not a child's tantrum but a young man's soul aching to reveal itself to the world. Dubuc is a phenomenal dancer-and, I should add, phenomenal at portraying the evolution of Billy's dance skills throughout the show.
The rest of the cast is equally as impressive. Highlights include Blythe Wilson as Billy's rough-around-the-edges-with-a-heart-of-gold dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson and Marion Adler as Billy's grandma. Mrs. Wilkinson is the first person to make Billy feel truly seen since his mother died. She sees his potential and she champions it. This is likely even more valuable to Billy than her actual lessons are. It is a powerful thing to have someone see you, and believe in you. Adler as Billy's grandma is a hoot! If a love a dance is hereditary, this is where he gets it. Grandma is the first person to introduce to Billy the idea of dance as an escape.
Dan Chameroy and Scott Beaudin are heartbreaking as Jackie and Tony. In one scene, they have a very upsetting fight over an impossible situation and a bleak future. This moment really makes it clear just how challenging life is for these men. Vanessa Sears is also heartbreaking as Mum. I dare you not to cry when she appears on stage.
Matthew G. Brown's Mr. Braithwaite adds great levity (as well as some impressive dance moves of his own) as Mrs. Wilkinson's assistant. He, Wilson, and Dubuc tear up the stage in "We Were Born to Boogie."
Emerson Gamble plays Billy's friend Michael not as a caricature, but as a kind and open hearted young man who is questioning his sexuality and is brave enough to be nothing but himself. Gamble and Dubuc, along with ensemble members Eric Abel, Devon Michael Brown, Henry Firmston, Jordan Mah, and Jason Sermonia are outstanding during the "Expressing Yourself" number. As I drove home from the theatre, I reflected on the fact that what Billy is doing is hard, what the miners are doing is hard, but what Michael has to do, might be the hardest thing of all. Billy leaves his small, isolated mining town to find kindred spirits. Michael, at least for now, has to stay there...and now without his best friend.
There are some glorious numbers in this production, but I'm not sure I've ever seen anything quite as stunning as the dream ballet performed by Dubuc and Colton Curtis, as Older Billy. Feore's choreography and the dancers' talent elevate this number to new heights (literally). I loved one moment where Older Billy stands on a chair and balances using young Billy's shoulders for support. It is symbolic of the fact that no matter what Billy accomplishes, it will always be built upon who he was and where he came from. Considering this scene is all in Billy's mind, it is clear that this is something he deeply understands as well.
BILLY ELLIOT is a beautiful combination of a fascinating and at times heavy story, delightful humour, and glorious dance. It should not be missed!
BILLY ELLIOT continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until Nov. 3.
Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann
A single digit typo in an earlier version of this article stated that this play took place in 1945. The intended date was 1985.