Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Born to Boogie: 'Billy Elliot' Remains a Musical Delight Even With Some Moss Under Its Feet -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Billy Elliot: The Musical
Porchlight Music Theatre
at Ruth Page Center for the Arts, Chicago
Thru November 26

I was quite fond of the 2000 British film Billy Elliot long before there was thought of turning it into a stage musical.

And when it was, premiering in London's West End in 2005--I didn't see it there until 2008--I instantly found it to be one of the best, and most natural, screen-to-stage adaptations.

Not only is it about an 11-year-old boy finding his desire to become a ballet dancer amid philistine resistance--led by his own father and brother--but the "championing of individuality" story fairly common on Broadway is well-complemented by threads pertaining to the recent passing of Billy's mother and an ongoing miner's strike in his hardscrabble hometown, which seems to have happened often under Margaret Thatcher's Prime Ministership. (British films such as Brassed Off, The Full Monty and Pride cover similar historical terrain.)

The musical, like the movie, was directed (originally) by Stephen Daldry, with the show's book by the film's screenwriter, Lee Hall. So much care was taken in the transition.

Photo credit: Austin Packard
And while, for pure delight, the movie's wonderful soundtrack (heavy on T-Rex, with Clash and Jam classics) isn't topped by the show's score, no less a talent than Elton John--whose interest largely drove the musical's development--wrote all the music, to which Hall penned the lyrics.

Having run for over 10 years in London, with 3+ years on Broadway impressive given the show's heavy Anglophile themes, Billy Elliot: The Musical began its touring cycle with almost a year at Chicago's Oriental Theater in 2010 (which was actually shorter than expected).

I saw it twice then, and also as a fantastic regional production--i.e. no longer under the auspices of the original creators--at the Drury Lane Oakbrook in April 2015

Though just a tad less ravishing, the current staging by Porchlight Music Theatre at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts--the company's new home after several years at Stage 773 on Belmont--is likewise superb.

Photo credit: Michael Courier
No one who has or hasn't seen Billy Elliot: The Musical previously should be anything but delighted by what the present cast, musicians and crew are able to achieve under the direction of Brenda Didier.

Sure, while the set design by Christopher Rhoton is mighty impressive, for both budgetary and spatial reasons it understandably doesn't match that in London, on Broadway (I didn't see it there) or the National Tour.

And although sitting next to a proud mother and grandma of one of the 17 kids in the ensemble only added to my appreciation for the effort involved, at multiple levels, some of the singing and dancing--while estimable--didn't quite wow like in the past.

But though largely unavoidable to patrons who may have seen a title such as Billy Elliot earlier in its theatrical life cycle, theater should be about enjoyment and entertainment in the present, not comparison with the past.

Photo credit: Austin Packard
And as with most Porchlight productions I've seen--including Marry Me a Little, In the Heights, Sondheim on Sondheim and Far From Heaven in recent years--the quality is quite estimable.

As Porchlight Artistic Director Michael Weber noted in welcoming the audience, this is the troupe's 23rd season, and its reputation should only grow as the resident company at Ruth Page, just a smidgen north of what would truly be considered downtown Chicago.

Lincoln Seymour played Billy Elliot at the performance I attended--he shares the role with Jacob Kaiser--and with strong training in dance, he was impressive in both the ballet and singing aspects of the role, as well as employing a passable English accent.

I've seen local starwart Sean Fortunato in enough shows to have expected a stellar performance as Billy's dad, even if he doesn't look akin to others I've seen play the part.

Adam Fane is strong as Billy's older brother Tony, a striking miner like their dad, while Iris Lieberman is a delight as Grandma, including on the aptly named, "Grandma's Song."

Photo credit: Michael Courier
The entire cast is excellent, including Nicole Cready, who warmly appears as Billy's deceased but eternally loving Mom, and young Peyton Owen as Billy's best friend, Michael.

Particularly wonderful is Shanésia Davis as Mrs. Wilkinson, the local ballet teacher who becomes Billy's personal mentor, champion and confidant.

After the show begins with the powerful choral number, "The Stars Look Down," Davis and her class of young girls--including Mrs. Wilkinson's cheeky daughter, Debbie (Princess Isis Z. Lang)--"Shine" nicely on the song of that name.

Even better, under Didier's direction and co-choreography (with Craig V. Miller), is "Solidarity," which--in reflecting Daldry and choreographer Peter Darling's original rendition--is one of the most brilliant production numbers ever crafted for musical theater. It quite powerfully intertwines the dancing class, now including Billy, with clashing miners and police.

Photo credit: Michael Courier
It is because of such narrative interconnectivity, and societal concerns, that I feel Billy Elliot is a superior musical--at least at this point--than the somewhat similar Trevor, which quite enjoyably world premiered at Writers Theatre recently on its way to Broadway, but could use a good bit more grit.

If you haven't seen Billy Elliot on stage or screen, I shouldn't provide many more narrative specifics about what unfolds, and if you have, I needn't.

I'll simply say that songs such as "Expressing Yourself," "The Letter," "Born to Boogie," "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher," "Electricity" and "Once We Were Kings" are well-delivered by the Porchlight cast (and unseen band), while the adroit handling of a scene in which miners descend in an elevator demonstrates this production's creativity in replicating the original with considerably less space and money.

Photo credit: Michael Courier
Also deserving mention is Ivan Bruns-Trukhin, who gracefully handles ballet solos as an older embodiment of Billy.

I haven't made an updated list of my favorite 21st century musicals since the end of 2009--perhaps soon--but Billy Elliot would likely still reside in the Top 10.

And barring a revival at some point, one is unlikely to again see it with quite the production values of London, Broadway or a national tour.

So it will be dependent on local self-producing theaters to keep breathing new life into the strikingly rich tale of a boy who just wants to dance, even if it means scouring the land for terrifically talented kids (and devoted parents, happy to support such noble if time-consuming pursuits).

At its new home, Porchlight impressively achieves that feat. 

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