note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
While riding the T from Boston last Wednesday, we conversed with two rambunctious men wearing red jerseys with Liverpool insignias, who were returning from the Liverpool-Roma game at Fenway. We discussed the British nationwide union strike of 1984 and how Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was determined to shut down the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and the “pits,” or coal mines, taking jobs away from hundreds of thousands of men, thus shutting down towns,villages and communities. Having grown up in Liverpool, my friendly fellow rider recalled those days of depression, poverty, yet solidarity among striking workers who supported each other with whatever they had. And he remembered these families’ hatred for Thatcher and her underhanded tactics.
“Billy Elliot” author-lyricist Lee Hall, (who also wrote the screenplay for “War Horse”) vividly recalled those days, too, and how their effect still reverberates in Northeast England.
Hall’s movie of “Billy Elliot” achieved worldwide fame, and caught the tearful eye of Sir Elton John, who proposed making it into a stage musical. Aided by Director Stephen Daldry and Choreographer Peter Darling, John and Hall’s creation emblazoned the stage, fusing the effects of that black time in Britain’s recent history with the dreams of a coal miner’s young son to be a ballet dancer. The result of this gut-wrenching, soul-searching effort? “Billy Elliot” was the 2009 winner of 81 national and international awards, including 10 Tony Awards, and continuously captivates family audiences today.
Despite frightening times with no hope for the future, poverty, clashes with revved-up, London police riot squads, and Thatcher’s squeezing the life out of union workers by closing the mines and importing coal, etc., communities in 1984 banded together, anthemically raising their voices and banners in “Solidarity”.
Ian MacNeil’s simplistic set and large movable props allow mobility for child dancers, strikers, scab workers, riot squads, and police, who at times clash and fuse in explosive, metaphoric scenes. Paul Arditti’s sounds blast and blare, as Rick Fisher’s lighting pulsates, flashes, darkens, rotates with colorful bursts, or contrasts with ethereal white glow when Billy’s deceased young mother, (Kat Hennessey) appears to him, with comfort and much-needed love.
On the other hand, Billy’s addled grandmom (marvelously portrayed by Patti Perkins), is far from angelic. She swears frequently, adding naughty gestures, and surprises Billy with her bombastic nostalgia, “We’d Go Dancing”.
As the play opens, the miners vote to strike, raising their voices and support in “The Stars Look Down”.
In the second act opening number, while trying to maintain the holiday spirit, their ire surfaces during the community Christmas party, in “Merry Christmas, Margaret Thatcher”.
Although money is tight, Billy’s dad sends him to boxing school, which the teen dislikes. Instead, Billy lingers, watching the girls’ ballet class, awkwardly moving amidst these twirling, tutu-clad, non-talented students. When Billy’s hard-headed dad (Rich Hebert), virile older brother Tony (Cullen B. Titmas) and the townies ridicule Billy for taking ballet, crusty dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson (Janet Dickinson), butts heads with these detractors. Hebert, Titmas and Dickinson provide passionate clout Kylend Hetherington, (who alternates as Billy with Ben Cook, Zach Manske, and Sharon’s own Noah Parets), is the consummate Billy Elliot. His dancing in many forms, be it ballet, tap, hip-hop, folk, jazz, and acrobatic, with his splendid acting and singing, is fantastic. Hetherington’s dreamlike dancing duet with a visionary adult version of himself (Maximilien A. Baud) and his stunning, self-expressive solo during his audition at the Royal Ballet School, in “Electricity,” are breathtaking.
Adorable Cameron Clifford as Billy’s cross-dressing, roly-poly little buddy, Michael, adds levity, keeping theatergoers in stitches while donning his sister’s clothes in “Expressing Yourself”. Clifford, (who alternates performances with Ethan Major), is lovably hilarious, his timing, gestures, and acting delightful.
Although their lives are drastically compromised, community members realize they have one ray of hope, Billy’s success, so they lend their support, singing “He Could Go and He Could Shine”.
Conductor Susan Draus on keyboard and her combined touring and local band members are magnificent throughout this three-hour, hard-hitting spectacular that resonates strongly with today’s aspiring performers and defeated workers. Their future is doubtful, but their hope, undaunted.
BOX INFO: Three-hour, two-act, multi-award winning musical, presented by NETworks Presentations, LLC, appearing at the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington St., Boston, through Aug. 19. Performances are Tuesdays,Wednesdays,Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2,8 p.m.; Sundays, 1,6:30 p.m. Tickets start at $33. Call Ticketmaster at 800-982-2787, visit www.BroadwayInBoston.com or the Box Office.