Wednesday, June 19, 2013

TheaterReview: Billy Elliot -- The Bushnell

Noah Parets (Billy) and Rich Hebert (Dad) Photo by Amy Boyle
Dreaming Big with Some Literal Leaps of Faith
By Lauren Yarger
A little boy has big dreams and takes some literal leaps of faith to achieve them in Billy Elliot, stopping on tour this week at the Bushnell in Hartford.

With music by Elton John and a book and lyrics by Lee Hall (who wrote the screenplay for the film on which this musical is based), the show won 10 Tony Awards, including best musical in 2009.

Billy (the role is shared by three actors, Drew Minard, Mitchell Tobin and 14-year-old Massachusetts native Noah Parets, whom I saw I on press night) tries to cope with his lonely existence in County Duram, England, just before the 1984 strike of the British National Union of Mineworkers. His beloved Mum (Molly Gardner), with whom he has imagined conversations, has died and his father (Rich Hebert) is distant. His elder brother, Tony (Cullen R. Titmas), is preoccupied with the union’s fight against the government and Prime Minister “Maggie” Thatcher and his senile Grandma (a funny Patti Perkins) keeps losing her pasties…

Billy and his best friend, Michael (Cameron Clifford and Jake Kitchin share the role), just don’t fit in where rough-and-tough, working-class miners expect certain behavior from men: Billy discovers a love for the ballet and Michael, who has feelings for Billy, likes to dress in girl’s clothing.

Ballet teacher Mrs, Wilkerson (Janet Dickinson) recognizes that Billy has a genuine gift and starts coaching him when he’s supposed to be taking the boxing lessons his father arranged. And where he has failed so miserably, the coach tells him “You’re a disgrace to your father.” She offers him support and tells Billy he can get in to the Royal Ballet Academy with the right audition.

When Dad finds out, he’s furious and forbids Billy from continuing with his dancing. But at the strike goes on (for almost a year), he starts to reconsider some of positions like taking work as a scab and what his wife might have wanted for Billy. As Billy imagines himself as an adult dancer (in a beautiful duet number with adult ballet dancer Maximilien A, Baud, choreographed by Peter Darling), the boy soars and his father, seeing him, decides to give his son a chance at fulfilling his dream. The mining community rallies around Billy as he goes off for his audition.

The choreography is the draw for this show. From ballet to tap, Billy and a huge ensemble of coal miners and ballet student girls dance up a storm. Most satisfying is “Angry Dance” where Billy’s frustrations are expressed. He literally hits a wall (depicted by crowd shields held by policemen battling the striking workers) and finds himself in a box. This is rock star John at his best. The rest of the score doesn’t really sound like him if you’re thinking Aida.

Directed by Stephen Daltry, Dickenson (displaying a ribald belt), Perkins (a hoot), Garner and Hebert all give strong performances. Parets dances well with steps performed with precision and technical skill if not all the heart we expect. The same could be said of the special effects: fog and fly rigging are used precisely, but they fail to make our spirits soar the way they did on the Broadway stage. It’s also hard to understand several of the kids who are trying very hard to do northern English accents. Entire lines of dialogue are lost.

Be warned: there is a lot of swearing and dialogue involving sexual terms and the theater suggests that this show might be unsuitable for children under the age of 8.

Billy Elliot plays through June 23 at the Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Performances: Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays: 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays: 8 pm; Saturdays at 2:30 pm; Sundays 1 and 6 pm Tickets $20-$95: (860) 987-5900;

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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