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Billy Elliot, The Musical
Book and Lyrics by Lee Hall, Music by Elton John
Directed by Steven Minning
The Muny
June 16, 2014

Tade Biesinger, Emily Skinner Photo: The Muny

Tade Biesinger, Emily Skinner
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is off to a great start this year.  Having had such a spectacular season last year with probably the three best shows I’ve ever seen at the Muny (West Side Story, Les Miserables, and South Pacific), Executive Producer Mike Isaacson and his team have a lot of live up to. So far, so good, I would say, with tthe first show of the Muny’s 2014 summer season. With a truly remarkable performance by its young lead and with great ensemble support and fantastic dancing, Billy Elliot, makes a winning impression.

A newer musical based on the popular film, Billy Elliot has the creative reputation of composer and pop music icon Elton John on hand, as well as an extremely impressive cast of young performers.  It’s an ideal show for Isaccson’s “New Muny”, in that it contains a lot of crowd-pleasing dance numbers and some great performances, but with a more modern approach and slightly grittier atmosphere. Set against the backdrop of a miners’ strike in a Northern town in England in 1984, resulting from then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s efforts to privatize the mining industry, this musical tells a story of an unlikely young hero.  Miner’s son Billy (Tade Biesinger) reluctantly takes boxing lessons while his father (Daniel Oreskes) and older brother Tony (Ben Nordsrom) work in the mines and then man the picket lines after the strike is declared.  Billy takes boxing lessons after school but doesn’t enjoy them, although after one session he finds himself in the middle of a ballet class taught by the gruff but kind Mrs. Wilkinson (Emily Skinner), who sees Billy’s potential as a dancer and encourages him to audition for the Royal Ballet School.  From there, the story unfolds with much drama and creative choreography as the events of the miners strike are shown in parallel with Billy’s dance training, and eventually Billy’s dream is threatened by expectations from his family, financial concerns, and the pressure to conform to societal norms in which a miner’s son isn’t expected to become a ballet dancer.

The dancing is at the forefront in this production, as it should be, and young Biesinger displays incredible ability in a variety of dance styles including ballet and tap.  Biesinger is also a fine actor with excellent stage presence and a strong, clear singing voice.  He’s an ideal fit to carry a show that’s named after his character, and every scene he is in is a winner, especially in the dancing scenes including a riveting fantasy sequence in which he dances a section of Swan Lake with an older version of himself (Maximilien Baud).  This scene is s technical wonder as well, with great flying effects.  Biesinger is supported by the excellent work of his co-stars, including Skinner who excels in fun numbers like “Shine” (in which Billy is introduced to the dance class) and “Born to Boogie”.  Michael Harp is also wonderful as Billy’s sweet best friend Michael, who likes to wear women’s clothes and shows off spectacularly in the charming “Expressing Yourself”, also shining in the dance department and tapping alongside Biesinger in a show-stopping production number.  Oreskes is also a strong as Billy’s Dad, who begins to display a real warmth and vulnerability despite his initially cold exterior.  His voice is a little rough-sounding on songs like the poignant “Deep Into the Ground”, but it fits the character so it works for me.  Patti Perkins, in a featured role as Billy’s Grandma, also has a great musical moment with “We’d Go Dancing” along with the excellent Men’s Ensemble.  Nordstrom is fine as the determined, resentful Tony as well, although his character isn’t given a lot to do and he disappears for long sections of the story.  The whole ensemble is very strong here, with excellent dancing especially, and strong singing and presence on group songs like the darkly comic “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher” and the wistful “Once We Were Kings”.

The choreography, originally by Peter Darling and re-created for the Muny by Alison Levenberg, is another star of this show.  With a fusion of various styles from modern dance to tap and, of course, ballet, the dance numbers are among the most memorable I’ve seen in any production and not just at the Muny.  The clever staging of numbers like “Solidarity”, in which Billy’s dance training is juxtaposed with the miners’ protests at the mine, is a real highlight.  Visually, the color palette is one of darker tones like charcoal grays and browns, with occasional accents of orange and yellow in the the period-specific costumes designed by Nicky Gillibrand and coordinated by Tracy Christensen.  The set, by Robert Mark Morgan, is also in these more muted tones, with a split backdrop of row houses to represent the town, and various movable set pieces to suggest the Elliots’ house, the town hall, and the mine.  Video footage and still images from the era are put to excellent use in establishing the overall mood as well.  It’s a very cohesive look and atmosphere that successfully evokes a very specific time and place. I should also note here that the Northern English accents are, for the most part, excellently articulated by the cast.

This is a show with several messages–of the importance of acceptance, of family ties and responsibilities, of daring to be different and pursuing one’s dreams on one hand, while having to deal with the disappointed hopes and crushed dreams of a whole town on the other hand.  The relationships are very well-played here, with surprisingly little sentimentality and melodrama.  I’m also impressed by the effective use of fantasy sequences such as the aforementioned Swan Lake scene, and Billy’s occasional conversations with his late mother (Molly Garner), especially in the very moving song “Dear Billy” and its later reprise.

This show strikes me as a shining example of everything that’s good about the “New Muny” under Isaacson’s tenure. It’s a top-notch quality show with elements of what the Muny loves (dance, big production numbers, flashy technical elements, a very large ensemble), but in a slightly more modern and sometimes grittier form than some of the more classic musicals that the Muny has been known for, even though  I’m sure the Muny will still be producing the classics as well. Superb productions like this one help to emphasize the Muny’s return to a world-class level of performance, and I hope the trend continues throughout this summer season.

 

The Cast of Billy Elliot Photo: The Muny

The Cast of Billy Elliot
Photo: The Muny

 

 

 

 

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