Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Billy Elliot sings and dances its way onto the @ Beck Center stage

The year is 1984.   Margaret Thatcher, the first woman British Prime Minister, declared war on the coal labor unions, closed 20 mines and laid off 20,000 workers in what she called “the process of bringing the British coal industry up to competitive levels.”

In County Durham, an area nestled into the middle of Great Britain’s coal mining district, workers went on strike.  A disastrous strike that lasted over a year, brought the workers and their union to its knees, forever changed the industry and made Thatcher the most hated person in some parts of the United Kingdom.

A. J. Cronin wrote the book, “The Stars Look Down” as a vision of what happened to the miners’ families and what went on within many communities, overlaid with the story of Billy Elliot, a talented tween with dance talent, who trades in his boxing gloves for ballet shoes.

A 2000 film, named after the boy, was inspired by the book, and was transformed into Billy Elliot the Musical, with book and lyrics by Lee Hall, who had written the screenplay, and music by Elton John.

The musical opened in London in 2005 and won four Olivier Awards.  The New York version won ten Tony Awards.

Billy Elliot is not a typical musical.  It requires an awareness of the background to the story.  The question facing any director is how to achieve that information.  In the case of the Beck production, the decision was made to show a news reel about Thatcher and her strike-breaking decision.  Since the opening number, “The Stars Look Down” and the second act curtain raiser, “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher” and the numerous script references to the strike and its effect on the coal miners are made, the decision to show the newsreel seems to be overkill.

Once past the opening, the strike story overlays that of eleven-year old Billy who is forced, against his desires, to take boxing lessons.  One day, he is told to stay behind after his fight instruction to give the keys to the gym to Mrs. Wilkinson, who runs a ballet class. 

Through a series of incidents, Billy winds up involved in the class (“Shine”), Mrs. Wilkinson quickly ascertains that he is a talented dancer, and the groundwork for a conflict of wills between the teacher and Billy’s macho father and brother is laid. 

With all the emphasis on the strike, the clashes with the strikebreakers, and the need for the community to stick together, Billy’s continuing to dance gets overlooked. 

The reality of the strike is well-developed in the song “Solidarity,” which not only highlights the conflict, but Billy’s skills. 

Eventually, his father and brother discover Billy’s ballet participation.  In spite of the family’s objections, Mrs. Wilkinson encourages the boy to audition for the Royal Ballet School in London. 

Billy and his friend, Michael, confront the restrictive nature of their working class community and break the barriers in “Expressing Yourself,” when the boys cross-dress, dance and sing, and find their hidden selves.

Questions abound.  Will Billy get to try out for the ballet school?  If he does, will he get in?  If so, how will the family pay for his schooling?  What will be the result of the strike?

Billy Elliot, The Musical is a difficult musical to produce.  It requires two tween boys who can sing, act and dance, an entire cast who can produce the difficult North Eastern English speech sound with consistency, and the proficient singing of a score that often has difficult melodic blends.  Most important is the fact that this is a dance show, which requires many choreographic effects.

The Beck production is blessed with having Martin Céspedes as its choreographer.  Most of the stage movements, even those that aren’t danced, are stamped with Céspedes’s creativity.  Movements of chairs (showing barricades and attitudes being constructed and torn down), marching into the mines after the miners are defeated with head lamps on and then turned off one by one (symbolizing the closing of the mines until total darkness descends on the nation’s entire coal industry), the controlled chaos of the dance classes, and the individual and group ballet creations, are much of the visual basis for the show.

The production has both high and low points.  The cast is to be commended for creating both the right verbal sounds (kudos to Dialect Coach, Mathew Wright) and consistent characterizations.

Allen O’Reilly nicely textured the role of Billy’s dad, clearly illustrating the polar pulls of loyalty to the union coupled with the region’s strong macho image, and the need to show caring love for his son. 

Katherine DeBoer is spot on as Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy’s ballet teacher.

Riley Ewing gives a strong performance as Billy’s older brother.  Hester Lewellen delights as Billy’s Grandma. Brittni Shambaugh Addison sings well as Billy’s dead Mum.  Michael Hinton does an impressive ballet solo as the Older Billy.

Houston native, Seth Judice, displays a fine singing voice as Billy.  His “Electricity,” an exhausting dance and singing marathon which illuminates the tenacity of the character, is a show highlight.   His speaking accent is excellent.  He is a well-trained dancer, but sometimes broke the effectiveness of his movements by rearranging his bangs and straightening his shirt after many of his turns and leaps.  As he becomes more comfortable in the role, hopefully these distracting movements will cease. 

Vancouver, Canada resident, Maurice Kimball IV, dances well and was generally effective as Michael.  Both he and Seth needed to be more physically and vocally free and have more fun, especially in their “Expressing Yourself” segment.

The orchestra was fine, but the production would have been enhanced by a more plush sound.  The vocal solos and choral blendings were excellent.

Unfortunately, as is the case in the Mackey Theatre, the inadequate sound system often causes difficulty in clear hearing and problematic balance between the orchestra and the singers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  As evidenced by the many bursts of applause following dance numbers and vocal solos, in spite of some questionable conceptual and execution aspects, audiences should appreciate the production.  Praise to Martin Céspedes for his choreographic concepts.

Billy Elliot, The Musical is scheduled to run through August 14, 2016 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to http://www.beckcenter.org