There is so much thrown at a person over the course of his life—sometimes even over the course of a day. It can be difficult to find a sense of self in the world. Instead of being brave, many unfortunately ostracize themselves, burying their heads deep in some metaphorical sand rather than find inner strength. Who hasn’t encountered questions of self from internal and external forces? Who hasn’t had to do something scary to gain something great? In the larger-than-life, yet real-world smash-hit musical “Billy Elliot”—now being produced by Opera House for its debut on the Thalian Hall main stage—those questions are posed and balked.
Based off the 2000 film of the same name, the musical was adapted for the stage in 2005 by Lee Hall and features original music by the Rocketman himself, Elton John. The production is worthwhile.
I usually don’t see the point of making musical adaptations of films. Many times they appear to be soulless cash-grabs of a dying niche market, featuring more-often-than-not forgettable songs that merely match corresponding scenes in a film that were important. “Billy Elliot” truly bucks the trend.
“Billy Elliot” tells the story of a young boy with dreams of dancing who is sadly growing up in a town where dreams end at the bottom of a mineshaft. The main character is torn between the life he knows, and the life he wants by his miner father (Jamey Stone) and his chain-smoking dance teacher (Nancy Allen). The Wilmington theatre premiere is a much needed tale of individuality and finding hope in hopeless times and serves the stage well.
Opera House and director Cathy Street have outdone themselves. While not flawless, “Billy Elliot” is a breath of fresh air Wilmington theatre goers have desperately been crying for. It is composed of fast numbers and plenty of bright colors moving quick. It’s true magic and a must-see—boasting a warm message of acceptance that will leave audiences smiling, applauding and wiping tears from their eyes.
The story kicks into action mere moments before the small mining community of Durham County, England, goes on strike in the heart of the ‘80s. The number “The Stars Look Down” floods Thalian Hall with the cast giving a grand sense of community to the tight-knit townspeople. Though it also begins the recurring issue of the production: over-stuffing the stage to such a degree, it’s hard to focus. Numbers like “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher” and “Solidarity” are enjoyable to listen to, but tight, chaotic motions deter attention. However, “Born to Boogie” and “The Letter” give the audience solid anchors to lock their attention onto and allows time to bond with the intended emotion. Both versions of “The Letter” are stunning to take in, even if they don’t feature of the show’s noteworthy dancing. Both Liam Redford (Billy Elliot) and Kendra Goehring-Garrett (Billy’s dead mother) capture something special that spreads across the theatre.
The dancing is the lifeblood of the show and the story. The skills Redford puts on display simply wow—showing precisely why he has taken on the Billy Elliot role five times. He perfectly shows the growing, yet natural talent Billy has toward dance. My jaw sufficiently hit the floor from his talent on display in “Angry Dance.”
Yet, the grace he and Gideon Chickos (an older dream vision of Billy) match with each other in “Swan Lake” shows the majesty of movement. Redford commands the stage for someone of such a young age. Though a few of his bigger acting moments did fall flat, specifically in the exchange with his father when he revealed his love for dancing.
Nancy Allen creates Mrs. Wilkinson as a teacher we all hope to find in our lives: jaded, sardonic, sarcastic and completely devoted. She refuses to let the boy give up on himself, even when the world mocks him. Taking on the role of a tough-love surrogate, she stands toe-to-toe with all who would mock him. Her disinterest in her own talentless daughter, Debbie (Chloe Moore), does lead to some rather funny moments.
While Debbie is a small comedic role, the spitfire energy Moore gives to it makes it a memorable one. Jamey Stone’s Jackie Elliot is not a cruel man by any means, yet he is a coarse one. Since the loss of his wife, he’s become a caretaker, a role as foreign to him as having a dancer for a son. Stone and Redford have issues connecting at times; their chemistry never finds a right note to play off of. It’s not to say Stone doesn’t bring forth a loving father. When he, the leader of the union strike, crosses the picket lines to earn the needed money to support his son’s dream, the moment brings on the water works (“He Could Be a Star”).
Beau Mumford makes a solid impression as Billy’s rebellious older brother Tony, though his quick-to-temper attitude ends up reading one-note. J.R. Rodriguez is perfect as the lovable gruff George who teaches boxing classes. Noah Ayden Grady is endearing as Billy’s best friend Michael and wows with his own dance skills and in a dress no less.
Debra Gillingham runs wild as Billy’s dementia-suffering grandma. She brings humor and pathos to a role that falls to the background of the action. Her number “Grandma’s Song” is a true ode to the hard-life joys of working-class people. Gillingham leaves audiences in awe.
The tech aspect of the show could be described as complicatedly simple. The design by Randall Enlsow is top-notch and moves seamlessly, which always gets bonus points because as we all know: sitting through long scene changes is a real downer. Selina Harvey’s costuming is impressive, but it’s simple small-town folks in a modern setting, so nothing really pops.
As for lighting, Jeff Loy creates a stunning shadow-cast against the theater’s back wall that accompanies Billy during one of the early dances. The effect is so good and happens so early, when nothing matches or even tries, everything else seems to lack.
The theatre scene in Wilmington is at an odd paradigm shift. Companies are up; venues are down. The style is changing. Hell, the scope of shows are changing. Change can be a painful process, but Opera House Theatre Company once again has shown they are willing to face the changes head on and with gusto. A production like “Billy Elliot” shows they are the biggest shark in our little Wilmington pond.
Aug. 8-11, 15-18, 7:30 p.m.; 3 p.m. on Sundays
Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St.
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