Thursday 19 May 2016

Billy Elliot sets a new standard for musicals
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  Good vibrations was not just a popular Beach Boys song in '66. The expression captures what excitation and arousal and romance can be had from a fling! Which is what everyone seeks to get out of a stage musical. To take us away, momentarily, from life's drib-drabbery, its daily demands and lock-step marching orders. Billy Elliot delivers it all with grace notes to spare. As if taking a leaf from the kids' summer theatre camp, you'll feel you Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance! watching this. Fun indeed to witness youngsters break free from the clutches of parents. Particularly parents beset by history leaving them behind in the time of Maggie Thatcher's skinflinty England.

How it's all put together : Seeing the Y2K movie version at Cannes -- screenplay by Lee Hall -- Elton John was smitten : "I had to be helped up the aisle, sobbing. The film had really got under my skin," he reported. It took five years to do, but EJ wrote the tunes to the show : his buddy Lee scripted both their lyrics and the show's book. Since its world premiere in London's West End in 2005, some 100 actors across the globe have portrayed the role of Billy in professional shows. Fully 41 actors played the lead during its 11-year run at the Victoria Palace Theatre where the show danced off the stage just this past month after totting up some 4,600 performances there.

What Billy brings to the stage : Set in the North England mining country of Durham -- you could flip a lump of coal and hit Edinburgh -- the time is the mid-80's. The epoch of privatization and deregulation, NAFTA free trade zones, the off-loading of government properties en masse : Reagan, Thatcher, Mulroney, VanderZalm were all of a piece in the devolution revolution. Durham miners were numb : from 1,000 pits during Churchill's "finest hour" only some 200 will remain post-Maggie. Their union was also NUM : the National Union of Mineworkers. Despite opposition from UK's Big Labour bunch, Solidarnosc! was their rallying cry. Mimic Lech's feisty docksiders in Gdansk they might, but ultimately they came away with a lot less to show for their struggles and bravura.

Dad Jackie (Warren Kimmel) and older brother Tony (Danny Balkwill) are caught up battling police and scabs when NUM takes its angry strikers to the streets. Young Billy (Nolan Fahey), motherless, fakes his way through boxing lessons at Dad's insistence. Quite by accident he stumbles across Mrs. Wilkinson (Caitriona Murphy) and her girls' ballet class right after a bit of boxing sufferance. Billy is intrigued, sticks around to try some plies and pirouettes. Dad finds out and is aghast : he prohibits any further such nonsense. Act 1 ends with Billy doing an Angry Dance of protest and frustration and rage.

As Elton put it : " The story of young Billy, a gifted working class boy with artistic ambitions seemingly beyond his reach had so many parallels to my own childhood. Like Billy, [I saw] the opportunity to express myself artistically [as] a passport to a better, more fulfilling life."

Early in Act 2 Dad sees the light. Billy's better at ballet than at boxing. He's got a future. Dad proposes to cross NUM's picket line and return to work to pay for Billy's future. NUM's strike lasts 358 days before it's crushed by its own inertia and Maggie's intransigence. Billy, a chrysalis amidst the trampled husks of the old miners, soon takes flight to the Royal Ballet School in London.

Some song-&-dance highlights : Unlike, say, Mary Poppins that interjects choreography into its storyline, in Billy Elliot ballet and choreography are the centrepiece. The storyline is stretched and manipulated to suit the EJ / Lee Hall musical numbers, e.g. Billy singing to his dead Mum [Leora Joy Perrie] and she back to him : a contorted dramatic stretch i.m.o. Or the dead-broke NUM miners spontaneously! and instantly! coughing up scant shekels -- as well as the scabs -- to fund Billy's Royal Ballet School audition in London in Act 2. Really? But these are quibbles.

Because addlepated Grandma (Barbara Pollard), meanwhile, is sheer delight. She rants against her late drunken husband but still champions the memory of dancing with him -- sort of : "He was bliss for an hour or so / And in the morning we were sober," she sings, much to the crowd's merriment.

Choreographer Valerie Easton outdoes herself with the piece "Solidarity" half-way through Act 1 that combines crisp dance routines involving the bobbies guarding the mines, the NUM strikers, and Mrs. Wilkinson's dancing class all at the same time -- 20 people braiding and dovetailing their various manoeuvres with cheek & bustle as they sing out "We're proud to be working class!" The routine, rightly, won huge audience huzzahs, no question at all my personal favourite on the night.

Billy's classmate chum Michael (Valin Shinyei) is a 12-year-old cross-dresser gay not quite out of the closet. The song "Expressing Yourself" where the boys don Michael's sister's silky threads and tap-dance with the ensemble before a slivered silver scrim was simply choice. 

A prize piece of fanciful footwork called "Born to Boogie" involving Billy, the ballet class piano man Mr. Braithwaite (Gordon Roberts) and Mrs. Wilkinson spins wildly after her admonishment to Billy : "You have to release your inner kid!"  Mr. Roberts, of some girth, almost upstages slight Billy in that one in the robustness of his "release". 

Next to "Solidarity", my personal favourite had to be Billy's closer to Act 1, the "Angry Dance" that starts in his bedroom and ends with him ricocheting off police plexiglass riot shields. Brilliant conception and execution both. 

Production values that add to the show : Not to overstate the case. But to make it. The "choreography" of Ted Roberts' exquisite North England mining village set design and Marsha Sibthorpe's variegated geometric lighting effects with Alison Green's superb costuming all dance wonderfully together in a visual and textured spectacle that is pure treat throughout the night. Ken Cormier's orchestra is chipper and nuanced with these familiar-ish EJ melody strains. 

Acting pin-spots : Hands-down champs of the night would have to be -- of course -- Nolan Fahey as the shy, thrilling young ballet and dance star Billy. Also Caitriona Murphy whose in-your-face ironies and take-no-prisoner feistiness against the County Durham sexist men matched her footwork. But other favourites were David Adams as Big Davy, chief "enforcer" of the striking miners with a wonderful booming voice. Danny Balkwill as Billy's belligerent big brother proudly sporting his Che Guevara t-shirt was powerful. Good convincing widower \ teen-age Dad befuddlement & bemusement by Warren Kimmel the night through.

Kudos of course to the young ladies of the ballet class and all the other dancers, too, who charmed the bejesus out of the crowd. Not one weak link anywhere in the Ensemble chain. 

Who gonna like : Often have I ranted against Vancouver's tendency to give performers knee-jerk standing-o's even for just B or B+ performances. The standing-o on opening night for Billy Elliot was explosive and resounding and utterly deserved by the 20 cast and countless dozens of creative production back-up. Musicals are meant to deliver whimsy and warmth and feel-good vibes. Billy Elliot aces this challenge. Economic downturns always mean loss. Life is a series of losses : innocence, family, familiarity. But the themes of hope! and faith! and belief! that always emerge from the "death of the old order" are what we need to hitch our thoughts to as we face the uncertain future. Billy Elliot gives us money-back-guaranteed good fun and good value and just plain downright good theatre -- the best overall big-stage musical production I have ever witnessed by a homegrown theatre troupe in Metro Vancouver.

Particulars :  Book & lyrics by Lee Hall.  Music by Elton John.  At ACT's Stanley Theatre stage, 11th & Granville.  Run-time 150 minutes including intermission.  On through July 10th.  Schedule information & tickets via or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production team :  Director Bill Millerd.  Musical Director Ken Cormier. Choreographer Valerie Easton.  Ballet Advisor Suzanne Ouellette. Set Designer Ted Roberts.  Costume Designer Alison Green.  Lighting Designer Marsha Sibthorpe.  Fight Director Nicholas Harrison.  Stage Manager Caryn Fehr.  Assistant Stage Manager Ronaye Haynes.  Apprentice Stage Managers Claire Friedrich, Tessa Gunn.  (Originally directed in London by Stephen Daldry).

Performers :  David Adams (Big Davy / Ensemble).  Mat Baker (Posh Dad / Ensemble).  Danny Balkwill (Tony).  Jordyn Bennett (Margaret). Avril Brigden (Susan). Matthew Cluff (Older Billy / Ensemble). Nolan Fahey (Billy). Warren Kimmel (Dad). Kristi Low (Sharon). Julia MacLean (Tracy). Caitriona Murphy (Mrs. Wilkinson). Arta Negahban (Keely). Leora Joy Perrie (Mum / Ensemble). Nathan Piasecki (Ensemble). Barbara Pollard (Grandma). Brian Riback (Tall Boy / Ensemble). Gordon Roberts (Mr. Braithewaite / Ensemble). Taylor Dianne Robinson (Debbie). Valin Shinyei (Michael / Billy [alternate]). Kirk Smith (George / Ensemble).

The Orchestra :  Graham Boyle (Drums). Henry Christian (Trumpet). Ken Cormier (Keyboards). Sasha Niechoda (Keyboards / Keyboard Programming). Chris Startup (Reeds). Andreas Schuld (Guitars / Variax).  Original London orchestrations : Martin Koch.


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