published: March 2, 2013
Recently opened at the Moran Theatre in the Times Union Performing Arts Center by the Artist Series, “Billy Elliot” is the playful and inspiring story of a young boy who was born to dance.
Set in Durham County, England during the 1984 miner’s strike, Billy Elliot is a spunky boy born into a family line of miners. The strike hits the town hard, its bleak poverty made worse by the anti-union influence of infamous politician and then-Prime Minister Margaret “Maggie” Thatcher.
It's in the midst of this conflict that Billy, who spends his time taking care of his elderly grandmother and taking weekly boxing lessons, finds himself accidentally involved and secretly brilliant in the art of ballet.
As Billy tries to deny his gift first to himself, then to others in his gender-specific hometown, he finds that individuality is not the sin it seems.
Starring as the titular character in this performance was Ben Cook. Cook carries the show on his young shoulders like a seasoned pro. Everything from Cook's dancing, vocal chops and even his impressively accurate dialect were spot-on. Cook's energy and beyond-his-years emotional gravitas make him a spectacular leading (young) man for the play. He is one of four who will play Billy during the show's run in Jacksonville.
Based on the film of the same name, "Billy Elliot" is a stirring, colorful and impishly sentimental musical journey. Sir Elton John's musical hand is clearly audible in this show, with its showstoppers like "Solidarity," heartbreaking ballads like "the Letter," purely comedic pieces like "Shine" and the entirety of the show's sweeping score.
The play itself, written by Lee Hall and directed by Stephen Daldry, is cheeky and triumphant. Its very grounding realism of Billy's home and the miners' picket line was well balanced by the quiet moments of emotion and outbursts of jocular laughs. The embrace of darkness and heavy emotion with passion made for visually striking moments, most notably at the end of Act 1 for Billy's "Angry Dance" against the barricade of riot police shields.
It's in one of these dark times that hides one of the show's most climactic moments, a pas de deux between young Billy and an adult Billy whom the young one imagines, with all the classical training and impeccable lines as he hopes to have. Everything about the duet between the two is representative of this dreamer's story and is truly breathtaking.
And for every moment of dreariness and brooding is one of blazing color and excitement, as when the unabashedly fabulous Michael (played by Jake Kitchin in this performance) belts his heart out about the joys of wearing women's clothes in "Expressing Yourself." Kitchin is effortlessly energetic, his every moment onstage full of character.
Starring as Billy's widower father is Rich Hebert. Hebert, who struggles from time to time with the thick dialect is otherwise brilliant as a strong patriarch in a gruffly lovable family. His quiet command of attention and intensity make the heavy moments heavier and allow for Billy's utter abandon into breathless excitement as the plot progresses.
Also starring is Janet Dickinson as Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy's ballet teacher. Her coarse sense of humor was well-tempered by quieter, softer moments of emotion. But when the plot demanded connection between Billy and his beloved teacher, it was lacking and the emotional impact was altered for it. Dickinson was delightful in the "up" moments, however. As she strutted across the stage and made wisecrack after wisecrack, her effortless manner made her easy to watch and even easier to laugh with.
Fans of the film will appreciate the integrity that the show possesses in everything from its mood and structure to the inclusion of some film dialogue. Though some plot lines have been altered, removed and/or created for the sake of a different medium, "Billy Elliot: The Musical" stands next to its movie counterpart as a compelling tale and among other musicals as a unique piece of theatrical art.
At its heart is a message of self-liberation that anyone can get behind. As Michael says in his charming showstopper, "What the hell is wrong with expressing yourself, for being who you want to be? The world's gray enough without making it worse. What we need is individuality!"
The show is advertised as suitable for most children 8 and older, due to its love of f-bombs and the like, as well as moments of intensity between police and miners. For ticket information, visit artistseriesjax.org or call 442- BWAY (2929) or 1-888-860-BWAY.