“All you really have to do is shine!”
“Billy Elliot” the musical based on the 2000 film, with music by Elton John and lyrics by Lee Hall, is set in the coal mining towns of Northern England in 1984, during the UK Miner’s strike that lasted a year under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Billy, played by powerhouse Drew Minard in Friday’s production, is an eleven-year-old boy who has lost his mother and often finds himself caring for his slightly senile grandmother, played by Susan Haefner on Friday, with whom Billy has a quite close relationship.
In “We’d Go Dancing” grandma divulges to Billy that she was quite unhappy in her marriage to Billy’s grandfather. And how the only time she felt she could escape her feelings of hopelessness was when they would go out dancing. Haefner gives an inspiring performance in this emotional number that was often quite funny; imagining her life without a man, dancing and drinking whenever she wants and the power of being able to just be yourself, a theme that echoes throughout with most every character trying to find their identity in one way or another.
Billy’s dad, Jackie, played by Craig Bennett on Friday, and brother, Tony, played by Cullen R. Titmas, both work in the mines and are typical man’s men. Jackie insists that Billy attend weekly boxing lessons so he’ll be tough. But boxing just isn’t the right fit for Billy and he becomes intrigued by a ballet class, instructed by Ms. Wilkinson, played by the dazzling and hilarious Janet Dickinson, also taking place in the gym. In “Shine” Ms. Wilkinson opens Billy’s eyes to ballet and he is immediately enthralled by how much fun the class seems to be having. Ms. Wilkinson sees innate talent in Billy and soon takes him under her wing to hone his skill, eventually lining up an audition for Billy with the Royal Ballet School which is foiled by Billy’s disapproving father and brother and by the surrounding chaos of the strike. Billy dances out his frustration in “Angry Dance” a number that is visually breathtaking with creative and dramatic uses of lighting and sound, performed flawlessly by Minard.
Finally in Act II, Jackie catches Billy dancing as Billy envisions himself as a grown, professional dancer, portrayed by Christopher M. Howard, performing in “Swan Lake.” Jackie realizes that he has been holding Billy back and decides to support his son fully by trying to get him to London to audition by eliciting help from the town in “He Could Go and He Could Shine.”
Billy’s best friend is Michael, played by Jake Kitchin in Friday’s show. In Michael’s big number, “Expressing Yourself” danced in front of a massive sparkly tinsel curtain, Michael shows Billy that it’s okay to do what makes you happy and in Michael’s case it’s wearing pretty dresses. Michael’s confidence in knowing exactly who he is, gives Billy the strength to pursue his ballet. Kitchin and Minard are wonderful together as the best friends and Billy’s unconditional acceptance of Michael is very endearing.
The set designed by Ian MacNeil is very organic with the actors moving most every piece themselves. While this concept sounds like it may be awkward, the expert direction of Stephen Daldry makes it feel very natural. And the dynamic choreography by Peter Darling ensures the audience is never bored and was performed without a hitch on Friday. The lighting design by Rick Fisher is incredible with Fisher often using spotlighting to project large shadows of the characters against the backdrop.
There are many ups and downs in the story, contrasting the uplifting feeling of Billy’s discovery of his talent, with the undertone of desperation in the town as a result of the strikes. But at the end of the day, “Billy Elliot” is a story about acceptance; a story of finding oneself, whether it’s for the first time, or again.
“Billy Elliot” is in town for two more nights, February 2-3, at the Landmark, do not miss it! And make sure to stay in your seat after the curtain for the fabulous number performed by the entire company.
www.landmarktheater.net for tickets