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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

'Billy Elliot' Will Dance into Your Heart

Photo by Doug Blemker
The last thing macho Jackie Elliot needed was his 11 year-old son Billy hoping to be a ballet dancer. After all, Mr. Elliot is widowed, a miner about to go on a protracted strike in a grimy English coal mining town in 1984, struggling to make ends meet while heading a household that includes his two sons and their grandmother, and where gender stereotypes are always in the forefront.  But that’s exactly what Dad is confronted with, and that dilemma forms the central theme for the astounding production of Billy Elliott the Musical now playing at the Hippodrome Theatre.
Billy is forced to take boxing lessons by his Dad because that’s what young men are expected to do in that part of the country.  Like his grown-up brother Tony, Billy is assumed to follow in his father’s footsteps and enter the mines.  But the paradigm dissolves when Billy stumbles into a ballet class following his boxing lesson.  There he meets dance instructor Mrs. Wilkinson who persuades him to join the heretofore all girls class and perform some steps.

Billy discovers he has a talent for dancing, and this is how he hopes to pursue his dreams.  Mrs. Wilkinson notices this as well and pushes hard for him to gain an audition at the prestigious Royal Ballet School in London despite significant social, economic and family obstacles. 
This struggle is juxtaposed against the community’s anguish and uncertainty caused by the miners’ strike in County Durham, in North Eastern England. The eventual support that Billy receives from his family and the miners is touching.

Billy Elliot the Musical is based on the superb 2000 film Billy Elliot. The music is by Elton John, and book and lyrics are by Lee Hall, who wrote the film’s screenplay.  The show captured 81 awards worldwide including ten 2009 Tony® Awards including Best Musical on Broadway, where it ran from October 2008 to January 2012 at the Imperial Theatre.  Nearly 1.8 million people saw the 1,344 performances.
On its national tour, the mounting at the Hippodrome under the direction of Stephen Daldry, who helmed the Royal Court Theatre production, and multiple award-winning Choreographer Peter Darling, is profoundly sensational.  John’s and Hall’s music is energetic, thematic and effectively underscores the powerful plot.  But with all the dramatic dialogue—and there is plenty of that—a generous sprinkling of British humor breaks the tension.

Just about all the musical numbers are either toe-tapping fun or they bring the serious moments to life. As good as the dramatic dialogue is, the music takes it to lofty heights.  Numbers such as “Shine,” “We’d Go Dancing,” “ Dear Billy,” “Deep Into the Ground,” and “Once We Were Kings,” were emotive.
Others, such as “”Solidarity,” “Expressing Yourself,” “Angry Dance,” and “Electricity” are authentic show-stoppers that garnered thunderous ovations from the audience.

Darling’s dance numbers—a highlight of the production—form an eclectic mixture of tap, hip-hop, jazz, acrobatics and folk dancing.  While the show’s plot is centered on ballet, the predominant dance form is tap and deliberately so.  “Tap is rhythmically exciting and such an expressive kind of dance,” says Darling. “At the same time, it’s synonymous with show business and musicals.  And Billy Elliot is very much a musical; it’s not a ballet.”
The entire company is outstanding, and all speaking parts require English accents.  Rich Hebert as Mr. Elliot perfectly played the complex character to the hilt.  Dealing with his son’s passion for dancing and later fully supporting it while coping with the effects of the strike is a daunting challenge for sure, but Hebert pulled it off.  His number “He Could Go and He Could Shine” with his older son Tony (Cullen R. Titmas) was solid.   His rendition of “Deep in the Ground” was one of the show’s highlights.  He even displayed some clever comedic moments at Billy’s audition.

Janet Dickinson as Mrs. Wilkinson is one of the plot’s heroes.  She saw in Billy the potential that nobody else could and was his biggest advocate.  Her vocals were quite good when called upon (“Shine,” “Dear Billy”) and she was a powerful dramatic force throughout.
Patti Perkins as Grandma gave a strong performance, and her revelation about her abusive late husband and her long-held desire to dance is powerful.

Billy’s best friend Michael, played by Jake Kitchen the night this performance was reviewed, is another interesting character.  He is the one soul his age Billy could confide in.  Billy was surprised by the fact that Michael likes to wear his sister’s clothes now and then and Michael explained it that his father wears women’s clothes routinely.  Billy seems taken aback when Michael kissed him on the cheek, revealing a crush he has for Billy.
With all the interesting characters, this show is about Billy Elliot.  On this night, the role was played by 13 year-old Massachusetts resident Noah Parets.  He is one of four boys alternating the part on the tour.  To say young Parets stole the show would be an understatement.  Charismatic, fresh and spunky, Parets played the role as it was designed. 

Parets’ vocals are steady with a sweet voice that has yet to undergo the dreaded deepening as he progresses through adolescence.  His dancing is simply spectacular.  He displays the power, grace and form that is required of a potential world-class ballet dancer.

His performances were sparkling especially in the outstanding duet with Michael “Expressing Yourself” and then “Angry Dance.”  Parets soared to new heights (literally) in a number when he imagined how he’d be dancing ballet in Swan Lake several years down the road.  He is paired with his future being  (Christopher Howard) in a moving, artistically choreographed number.
The other elements of this show—the orchestration (Conductor Bill Congdon), lighting (Rick Fisher) and sound (Paul Arditti), and Costume Design (Nicki Gillibrand)—are stellar. 

Just a few days removed from the massacre at Newtown that sickened the nation where twenty young children will never realize their dreams, the fairy-tale Billy Elliot the Musical comes along in the heart of the Christmas holiday to offer the right medicine.
Running Time: Two hours and 50 minutes with a 15 minute intermission.

Advisory: This show contains profanity and is not recommended for children.

Billy Elliot the Musical plays through December 30 (except Christmas) at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 North Eutaw Street Baltimore, MD 2120.  Tickets are available at the Box Office, all Ticketmaster outlets, or call 410-547-SEAT.

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