“Billy Elliot the Musical” is a show where you’ll remember the dance long after the Elton John songs – pleasant and serviceable as some of them are – fade.
Based on the beloved British film, this Tony Award-winning musical is about the 11-year-old son of a coal miner who accidentally stumbles into the world of ballet and awakens to a dream that can change not only his own life, but the lives of everyone in his despairing, impoverished village.
There are no musical show-stoppers, despite some hard-driving rock, a couple of lyrically poignant ballads and a catchy, satirical tribute to “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher” that has the insidious power to dig itself into your subconscious like “It’s a Small World.”
Ah, but there are three movement showcases from director Steve Minning and choreographer Alison Levenberg (based on Stephen Daltry’s London original) that stop the show with their power, beauty and audacity. There’s “Angry Dance” as Billy dances out his adolescent frustrations in explosive spasms. There’s “Electricity” as Billy explains how dance makes him feel, not with words, but with flying feet that take him all over the stage in an exhaustive tour de force.
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And there’s a glorious fantasy sequence – complete with swirling mist and sparkling stars – where the adult Billy partners and guides the 11-year-old Billy in a Tchaikovsky-flavored dream. Dressed identically in black tights and white shirts, the two pass energy back and forth, from inspiration to execution. That wordless scene can give you goosebumps.
The choreographer also creates several crowd scenes that are as intricate and precisely coordinated as halftime for a marching band, with striking miners in helmets fighting cops with nightsticks while little girl ballerinas in tutus swirl in and around them. And throughout, there are straight wooden chairs wielded as dancing props by the men like Fred Astaire uses a cane. It’s a magnificent melange.
Central to all those movements as Billy is 15-year-old Mitchell Tobin, who has been performing the role all around the world since 2012. Tobin is an accomplished dancer who skillfully evolves his character, channeling Billy’s raw, all-over-the-place energy into increasingly more coordinated and sophisticated passes that are part gymnastics, part ballet and lots of thunderous tap. If he was too good too soon, the credible drama of Billy’s journey would have been lost – although I feel Tobin was holding himself back a bit in “Angry Dance” rather than going all out, perhaps pacing himself for the powerhouse “Electricity” to come.
Tobin’s singing voice, particularly in “Dear Billy” about a letter from his dead mother, has a winsome, adolescent charm that’s emotionally real rather than highly polished.
Discovering Billy and adopting him as a personal project to redeem her own failed dance dreams is Janet Dickinson as the cynical Mrs. Wilkinson. Dickinson has a powerful set of pipes to belt out “Shine” as advice for her mostly uncoordinated would-be ballerinas or romp through “Born to Boogie” in awakening Billy’s dreams. But she also has a light and lovely soprano to pair with Carolyn Anne Miller as the spirit of Billy’s Mum for a heartbreakingly beautiful duet to reach out to Billy from the grave.
Dickinson never allows Mrs. Wilkinson to go sentimental or huggy-huggy (even when audiences clearly yearn for it). But she does allow her some comic flair and posturing that hints that her character hasn’t lost all her optimism.
Also providing powerful vocals is Craig Bennett as Billy’s dad, who is at first outraged over his son’s interest in such a frivolous and unmanly thing as ballet, but comes to see his son’s talent and potential for a better life than he could give him. Bennett is a bearded bear of a man whose “He Could Go and He Could Shine” reveals a tender heart beneath the grimy, rough exterior. His “Deep into the Ground” about his own dangerous, claustrophobic world of coal mining is haunting.
Providing the needed comic relief to some pretty heavy topics are Evan Lennon as Billy’s best friend, Michael, and Patti Perkins as Billy’s feisty, salty-tongued grandma.
Lennon plays Michael as a delightfully curious, irrepressibly earnest innocent who sees nothing wrong with trying on his sister’s dresses. Lennon’s showcase, “Expressing Yourself,” is a music hall hoot as he persuades Billy to join him in drag.
And Perkins is a lovable, if one-note grouch who has reached an age where she doesn’t need to suffer fools. She dismisses them with a raised finger or a quick cuss, to audience delight, but her memories of her long-gone, abusive husband in “We’d Go Dancing” are rich, emotionally raspy and resonant.
If you go
‘Billy Elliot the Musical’
What: Winner of 10 Tony Awards, this 2008 best musical from Elton John and Lee Hall tells about a British coal miner’s son who dreams of dancing ballet; MTW regional premiere and third show of 44th season
Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas
Additional performances: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $64-$28 evenings, $56-$26 matinees; call 316-265-3107