Friday, April 17, 2015

Majorly Impressive at Drury Lane Oakbrook, 'Billy Elliot' Remains a Miner/Minor Miracle -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Billy Elliot: The Musical
Drury Lane Oakbrook
Thru June 7

Yes, Allison, you should see Billy Elliot at the Drury Lane Oakbrook. It's really fantastic.

Of course, so should a lot of other people, of pretty much all ages (despite a few curse words), but I felt I should first address the pressing interest of my sister, the biggest Billy Elliot fan I know.

Even more than I do, Allison absolutely loves the 2000 British movie about a boy named Billy who wants to learn ballet within a hardscrabble North Eastern England town amidst the miners' strike of 1984-85.

Music, along with dance, is crucial to that film, and the terrific soundtrack features plenty of T.Rex along with great songs from the Jam, Clash and others.

Perhaps due to its heavy Anglofication, the Billy Elliot movie wasn't a huge hit in America, but earned three Oscar nominations, including for director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter Lee Hall.

At some point, Elton John noted that the movie's storyline had the makings for a strong stage musical, for which he wrote a completely original score, with lyrics by Hall, who also served as the book writer.

In 2005, under the direction of Daldry, the musical opened to rave reviews in London, where separately both Allison and I saw and loved it.

Quickly becoming a huge hit, Billy Elliot: The Musical continues to run in the West End, and though I wondered if it was too British to be embraced on Broadway, it wound up having a nice 3+ year run there, starting in October 2008. (Neither I or Allison saw it in New York.)

Rather than initially embark on a true National Tour, in March 2010 Billy Elliot began a "sit-down" production in Chicago intended to run for several months, maybe years (as had Wicked and Jersey Boys).

I wound up seeing it twice at the Oriental Theatre and again loved it, and I'm pretty sure Allison saw it there, too.

Though it earned rave reviews and had production values equal to those in London (and conceivably Broadway), that run ended at the end of November 2010, a bit earlier than its producers supposedly hoped.

A couple of cross-country tours followed, but with those having now concluded, Billy Elliot is beginning to appear in freshly-generated regional productions. The just-opened run at Drury Lane Oakbrook is the first local staging in the Chicagoland area.

Like other self-producing musical theater venues/companies in the Chicago and its suburbs--including Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire, Paramount Theatre in Aurora, The Mercury Theater in Chicago, Theatre at the Center in Munster and Light Opera Works in Evanston--DRO has consistently shown that the quality of its productions is routinely excellent and at best even exquisite.

Especially in terms of vocal quality, I've found a number of Drury Lane productions to be as good as downtown Chicago, Broadway or London--or pretty darn close to it.

But though the production values in Oakbrook Terrace are also typically quite impressive, Billy Elliot would seem to be a particularly tough musical to get right, due in no small part to the demands of the title role.

But thanks to the terrific singing, dancing (ballet, modern and tap), acting and passable British accent of young Nicolas Dantes--one of two rotating Billys in this production, along with Kyle Halford--I'm pleased to tell Allison, and you, that on Opening Night, Billy Elliott and Billy Elliot were truly outstanding at the Drury Lane Theatre.

And, certainly, the production's merits go far beyond a really talented kid.

As I've hopefully already established, I think the musical itself is first-rate as it intertwines the story of Billy's ambitions with that of a town in turmoil. Opening song "The Stars Look Down" is one of several righteously-robust choral numbers representing the miners' struggle, while tunes like "Expressing Yourself" and "Born to Boogie" are absolute delights in pairing Billy with his best friend Michael (played by Michael Harp) and dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (Susie McMonagle), respectively.

Billy Elliot's narrative, script, songs and production numbers are all quite stellar, and the fine DRO cast does the source material more than justice under noted director/choreographer Rachel Rockwell.

Besides Dantes (or presumably Halford) and Harp, it is fun to see several talented children onstage, and I liked how Rockwell stages one of the best musical theater scenes in recent memory: the song "Solidarity" which weaves battling miners and police within a dance class being taught by Mrs. Wilkinson.

Rockwell's efforts are well-abetted by an effective set design from Kevin Depinet, who resists duplicating the innovative multi-level flat (Billy's room upstairs; kitchen downstairs) central to the scenery in London/Broadway/Chicago, but convincingly so. His set pieces embodying the industrial community are especially strong.

So too are the adults in this production, including McMonagle--a local favorite of mine for 15 years now--who reprises the acerbic dance teacher role she played for a good chunk of the Chicago sit-down run.

Ron E. Rains is really good and believable as Billy's dad, who is one of the striking miners along with Tony, Billy's older brother, well-played by Liam Quealy. As Billy's Grandma, who sings the delightful, "We Go Dancing" early in Act I, Maureen Gallagher is great fun.

Even in smaller roles, I enjoyed noting old pros Terry Hamilton (a TimeLine Theater stalwart), Fred Zimmerman and Bret Tuomi, while Rhett Guter is an excellent dancer who accompanies Billy in certain scenes.

So there's a lot to this show besides just a boy who wants to dance, but despite all else that is great about it, Billy Elliot would suffer greatly if the kid(s) weren't far more than alright.

Willing to cut some slack given the multi-faceted demands of the Billy role, I was truly surprised by how good Dantes was in every facet of his performance. In both his singing and dancing, he's not just good enough, he's genuinely wonderful.

Thus I hope this answers your question, Allison, and everyone else who may be wondering.

Yes, you should see Billy Elliot, even if you're an aficionado who has seen the musical in prestigious prior incarnations, and perhaps even more so if you never have.

Despite the full house at on opening night, Billy Elliot is showing up on Goldstar with some nice discounts that should add greater affordability to its considerable appeal.

But even at a rather reasonable full-price of $40-$55, I would strongly recommend that seeing this production is well worth it.

For at this point, to see another Billy Elliot this good may well require heading to London.

And even given the slow-go 90-minute drive on Thursday, for those of us who live in Skokie (or anywhere in the Chicago area), getting to this Drury Lane is a far more minor--and miner--undertaking. 

No comments: