Stage Door Review

Billy Elliot the Musical

Sunday, June 30, 2019

✭✭

music by Elton John, book & lyrics by Lee Hall, directed by Donna Feore

Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford

May 28-November 3, 2019

Billy: “Electricity

Sparks inside of me

And I’m free, I’m free”

It’s still early in the season but it is hard to imagine any musical surpassing Billy Elliot at the Stratford Festival as the must-see musical of the summer. The musical itself is one of the greatest British musical not merely because it finds Elton John at his most daring and inventive but because, unlike so many musicals, it is peopled with complex, fully rounded characters who live in a specific, detailed historical period. Donna Feore has outdone herself in directing and choreographing the show for a thrust stage. The starry cast has no weak link and Nolen Dubuc, who plays Billy is simply amazing.

The musical from 2005 which won both an Olivier Award and a Tony Award for Best Musical, is based on the film from 2000 directed by Stephen Daldry. Unlike the creators of many musicals based on films, Daldry, who directed the original stage production, and book and lyrics writer Lee Hall realized that the film had to be completely reconceived to work on stage. Nevertheless the essential story remains the same.

The action is set during the 1984-85 UK miners’ strike in County Durham at a time when the anti-union Margaret Thatcher was in power. Amid the increasing tensions that arise as the government wears down the miners’ union and the fear that the whole region will lose its livelihood, one small spark of artistic talent arises in the bleakness. Eleven-year-old Billy Elliot, who lives with his brother Tony (Scott Beaudin), his widowed father Jackie (Dan Chameroy), both miners, and his slightly loony Grandmother (Marion Adler), stays on in the union hall where his boxing class was held to give the keys to Mrs. Wilkinson (Blythe Wilson), who runs a ballet class. The class is all girls, whom Wilkinson charges 50p a lesson. Billy stays on to watch, but Wilkinson won’t have it and says he must join in if he’s going to stay. He dances for the first time and finds he likes it and begins going to ballet classes instead of boxing. 

Wilkinson  recognizes that Billy has enough talent that he should try to audition for the Royal Ballet School and she is willing to give him lessons for free. When the time for the regional audition comes around and Billy does not show up, Mrs. Wilkinson goes to Billy’s house, confronts Jackie and Tony which leads to Jackie’s banning Billy from dance.

Six months later, after the miners have achieved nothing, Jackie happens to watch Billy doing an improvised dance to music from Swan Lake. Finally, having seen his son dance and realizing for himself that Billy has talent, Jackie now goes to Mrs. Wilkinson to see if there is still any chance for Billy to audition for the Royal Ballet. Once disagreements between the two are settled, the community, who has come to see that there is no future in mining, gets behind Billy to help him pursue his dream.

To the realism of this scenario, Daldry and Hall have added fantasy sequences that were not in the film. When Billy and his gay friend Michael (Emerson Gamble) try on Michael’s mother’s dresses, the dresses come to life and join them in a dance. Billy’s mother (Vanessa Sears) who is absent in the film, appears at key points in the musical as a symbol of the only embodiment of gentleness he has known. Most significantly, Hall has changed the ending. In the film we see Billy’s father and Michael watching Billy on stage in a performance of Swan Lake and thus know he has triumphed. In the musical Billy leaves the stage to face a new and, we hope, successful life. His imagining of this life is placed earlier in the action in a brilliant scene where Billy imagines himself dancing to Swan Lake with what he hopes will be his older self (Colton Curtis). 

Very few musicals provide such richness of background and character and such rapid shifts in mood from humour to anger, from hope to despair, and back. Doona Feore has clearly been inspired by the challenge and controls all of the musical’s complexities with vigour and panache. 

Her task is made easier by the fact she has been given an extraordinarily fine cast. Twelve-year-old Nolen Dubuc, who hails from Vancouver, has trained in acting, dance, voice and gymnastics, won awards in the first three of these and has already appeared in important roles in two professional musicals. He is as fine an actor as any of the adults on stage and he has mastered the Geordie accent they use better than some. Though his voice has not yet broken, he is a strong singer and brings such feeling to his main song “Electricity”, where Billy tries to describe what it feels like to dance, that you will likely feel a lump in your throat. In dance he has mastered not only ballet and tap but jazz and modern styles. Feore, knowing his background, also works in some acrobatics. Every one of his numbers, whether dance or song or both, drew roars of approval from the audience. 

The show’s second most important role is that of Mrs. Wilkinson. Ideally, the character should look like someone who was formerly a dancer but has let herself go after her career has ended. That’s how Julie Walters looked in the film, how Jackie Clune looked in the West End production in 2007 and how Kate Hennig looked in the Toronto production in 2011. Blythe Wilson who plays the role at Stratford not only does not look like she has let herself go but looks so fit she could more likely be teaching Dancerize classes for more money at the local gym rather than ballet lessons for a pittance. Costume designer Dana Osborne does not help with the idea that Mrs. Wilkinson is just getting by by giving her a new snazzy outfit every time she appears. 

How Mrs. Wilkinson looks physically and in dress is important because it helps suggest that she is a teacher who wants to achieve a success for Billy that she never had. Her forgoing payment for lessons should show a real sacrifice she is making to bring out Billy’s talent. 

Yet, despite all this, Wilson, one of Canada’s most dependably excellent actors, makes this new version of the character work. In the scene when Jackie meets her and her husband (Chad McFadden), Wilson gives us the feeling through her suddenly cowering demeanour that her marriage is what stopped her career and led her to live in such a cultural wasteland. Best of all Wilson conveys Wilkinson’s mercurial nature. We see right from the first how her outwardly gruff, offhand treatment of Billy really hides her joy at finally finding a student who has the potential to reach the highest level of dance. Wilson brings off her two big numbers “Shine” and “Born to Boogie” with all the vibrancy we’ve come to expect from her.

Playing Jackie, Mrs. Wilkinson’s prime opponent and later prime ally, Dan Chameroy gives a performance light years removed from his over-the-top Dr. Frank N. Furter of The Rocky Horror Show last year. Chameroy has lowered his voice to a growl and changed his body language to make Jackie appear like a brooding, angry, defeated man. He makes us feel Jackie’s wonder at finally understanding his son for the first time. He also makes us feel Jackie’s shame at having to become a scab to afford to live and to help Billy. Chameroy beautifully shows how singing the folksong-like “Deep into the Ground” evokes emotions in himself that he is no longer strong enough to hide.  

While Billy may be the main focus of the show, there is another boy in the show who also displays an amazingly mature talent. That is Emerson Gamble, aged 13, who plays Michael, Billy’s best friend who comes to realize that he is gay and attracted to Billy. This would be a difficult role for an adult to play, yet Gamble gives a performance of nuance that few adults could equal. Gamble shows how fun with Billy in trying on women’s clothes later evolves into more serious feelings. And we feel as hurt but resigned as Michael does when Billy tells Michael he can’t reciprocate Michael’s feelings. Gamble proves himself to be a powerful singer and an especially fine tap-dancer in his big number “Expressing Yourself”. 

All the smaller roles receive strong performances. Vanessa Sears exudes warmth and tranquility as the ghost of Billy’s mother. This role could easily dip into the maudlin, but Sears’s composure and blissful voice portray Billy’s mother not as despondent but as his always accessible source of strength.

Marion Adler plays Billy’s Grandmother not so much as dotty as eccentric. She gives a fine rendition of “Grandma’s Song” in which the old woman berates men for their duplicity and puffed-up egos. Scott Beaudin always brings a feeling of danger with him as Billy’s elder, volatile brother Tony. Steve Ross is very funny as Billy’s boxing instructor faced with nothing but hopeless cases. And Colton Curtis fully embodies strength and grace as the Older Billy is his insightfully choreographed duet with Billy.

In a show about where an individual is seen in relation to his community, the chorus is very important. Feore foregoes her inclination for acrobatics to focus on marshalling the male chorus, whether as miner or as policemen, to various complex patterns. Great as Elton John’s songs are for individuals, it’s likely you will exit humming the chorus’s recurring song “Solidarity”.

Feore’s choreography encompasses a wide range of dance styles from ballet to tap to ballroom to modern dance. Perhaps her most ingenious work is her choreography for Mrs. Wilkinson’s ballet classes where Feore provides each of the nine girls with a personalized set of recurring flaws. Seeing Billy Elliot on a thrust stage already brings us closer to the action than was ever possible on a proscenium stage. Feore’s use the aisles of the auditorium for the chorus’s entrances and exits involve us in the action even more.

The one objection some may have is that the dialogue of the show is filled with coarse language. Yet, this suits the nature of the characters and the stress they are under and adds to the unloveliness of the background from which the beauty of Billy’s dancing so surprisingly emerges. Having seen how well Feore has envisioned the musical for a thrust stage, I would be hard pressed to see it sequestered inside a proscenium again. If you have seen Billy Elliot before elsewhere, you must see it again on the Festival stage. If you’ve never seen it before, see it at Stratford while you can. I did not see the show on opening night but rather with a full house of ordinary theatre-loving patrons. I’ve never heard such whoops and cheers after every one of the big dance numbers and at the end the decibel level of the collective roar of approval exceeded anything I’ve heard there before. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: Nolen Dubuc as Billy Elliot and Blythe Wilson as Mrs. Wilkinson with ensemble; Colton Curtis as Older Billy and Nolen Dubuc as Billy Elliot; Nolen Dubuc as Billy Elliot; Emerson Gamble as Michael and Nolen Dubuc as Billy Elliot; Dan Chameroy as Jackie Elliot and Nolen Dubuc as Billy Elliot. © 2019 Cylla von Tiedemann.

For tickets, visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.