Theatre Mirror Reviews-"Billy Elliot"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth

"Billy Elliot, The Musical"
A Smash Hit

A Review by Sheila Barth

Two years ago, when the NETworks Presentations, LLC production of “Billy Elliot, the Musical” appeared at the Boston Opera House, it was a smash hit - literally. The story of a young British boy in a very macho, coal mining family, who wants more than anything to dance in the ballet, is set against the all-too-real British nationwide union strike of 1984. At that time, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was determined to shut down the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and the “pits,” or coal mines. Thatcher’s actions, recorded in the production through stirring, historic newsreels, took jobs away from hundreds of thousands of men, shutting down towns,villages and communities. 

At Ogunquit Playhouse, under the expert director of BT McNicholl, several Broadway and national touring performers ignite the stage,  while set designer Campbell Baird, sound designer Eric Martin and lighting designer Jack Mehler have re-imagined Lee Hall-Elton John’s incendiary musical, intensifying its drama. Author-lyricist Hall, (who also wrote the screenplay for “War Horse”) vividly recalled those troubled times in England, too, and how they continue to affect Northeast England. 

Hall’s heartfelt movie of “Billy Elliot” awakened the world to the coal miners’ plight, including Sir Elton John, who proposed making it into a stage musical. With Director Stephen Daldry and Choreographer Peter Darling, “Billy Elliot, the Musical” achieved international acclaim.

Besides powerful scenes of riot squads and strikers clashing, and both sides refusing to back down, young Billy Elliot and an unmotivated ballet class of girl students in stiff, white tutus thread between the violence, oblivious to the impending crush occurring all around them. Amidst this clamor, a young child (touchingly portrayed by Henry Barzee Asnes), is a constant reminder of innocence.     

The underlying theme of daring to be oneself, accepting individuals for who and what they are, instead of ridiculing them, and coming together to help them soar is even more  potent.  

Adam Pelty’s recreated choreography, based on Darling’s original, stunning moves, is heart-stopping, as is music director Ana Flavia Zuim and the orchestra’s fantastic accompaniment in all numbers.   

  Despite no hope for the future, the threat of poverty, clashes with 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. In Elton John’s anthemic song, “Solidarity,”  the miners refuse to back down, raising their voices and banners throughout the play.

Opening ensemble number, “The Stars Shine Down,” punctuates the compelling night before the strike, as families rally together to take on corporate and governmental foes.

As Billy reluctantly shuffles to boxing school, but lingers to watch Mrs. Wilkinson’s sorry-looking ballet class, his lovely, deceased mother comes to him, bringing love and light into his life. Broadway veteran actress Anastasia Barzee shines as crusty ballet teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, and is a mirror image to Elysia Jordan’s ethereal demeanor as Billy’s Mum.

On the other hand, Dale Soules as Billy’s addled, crusty, alcohol-fueled grandmother spices up scenes with her salty language and comic behavior. Soule’s reminiscent rendition of her relationship with Billy’s no-good grandfather in “We’d Go Dancing,” is shocking, good fun. 

Armand Schultz as Billy’s latent-enlightened dad, who also battles his enraged, older son, Tony (Anthony Festa), adds clout here.

Although I missed seeing Noah Parets of Sharon perform as Billy (he also shared the main role in the national touring company), Sam Faulkner of Charleston, NC as the alternate star is wonderful to watch. His acting is solid, and his dancing in many forms - ballet, tap, hip-hop, folk, jazz- doesn’t miss a beat.  His illusory dancing duet with a visionary adult version of himself (Stephen Hanna) and his self-expressive solo during his audition at the Royal Ballet School, in song “Electricity,” are, indeed, electrifying. 

In fact, this entire cast and ensemble are outstanding, especially Boston’s shining star, Alec Shiman of Brookline, as Billy’s cross-dressing, funny little buddy, Michael, whose quips, and solo in “Expressing Yourself,” while dressing in his sister’s clothes and encouraging Billy to do likewise, is priceless. There are no dead scenes here. Like Elton John’s pulsating beats, “Billy Elliot” is an unrelenting musical with intense messages and moments, a story of a community whose future is doubtful, but their support and devotion to each other, unflagging, their hope undaunted.

BOX INFO: Two-act, 2-3/4-hour, multi-award winning musical, presented by Ogunquit Playhouse through July 26, at the Main St., Route 1N, Ogunquit theater. Performances: Tuesday-Friday, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, 8:30 p.m.; matinees, Wednesday, Thursday, at 2:30 p.m., Sunday, 2 p.m.; also, last Saturday, matinee at 3 p.m. Single tickets start at $39. For tickets, and more information, visit www.ogunquitplayhouse,org, call the Box Office at 207-646-5511, or visit the theater’s new box office at 102 Main St., Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine.

"Billy Elliot, The Musical" (till 26 July)
@ 102 Main Street, Route 1 North, OGUNQUIT ME

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide