Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol
The touring musical, Billy Elliot, receives sustaining and well-deserved applause as it continues its run at Hartford's Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts through June 23rd. Based upon the movie version and benefitting from Elton John's music and Lee Hall's book and lyrics, the dance and music show is exhilarating.
The introductory portion of the production more or less centers upon the miners' strike during 1984 in northern England and this influences all that will follow. Billy (talented Noah Parets at opening night in Hartford while Drew Minard and Mitchell Tobin play the role on other occasions) is slated to join his father (Rich Hebert), brother Tony (Cullen R. Titmas) and many others who are on strike in the town. In fact, Billy is given money for boxing lessons which he takes pretty much against his own wishes.
The young man, however, "finds" Mrs. Wilkinson (Janet Dickinson) who introduces him to dance. He gravitates to this world and utilizes the funding to devote himself to ballet. While his father and brother cannot understand this, Grandma (Patti Perkins) recalls dancing as an escape. A subplot involves Billy's close friend, Michael (Jake Kitchin at the Hartford opening evening performance) who urges Billy to free himself.
The story line of the musical moves from rousing group scenes involving miners and police to Billy's story. Eventually, Billy's father figures out just what is going on with his son. The talented boy will finally make his way to London for a major audition. One of the most moving numbers of the first act is "Dear Billy," a letter from his dead mother and it is sweetly performed by Noah Parets, Janet Dickinson and, as the "mum," Molly Garner. The first portion of the musical closes with "Angry Dance" which demonstrates Billy's frustration.
Many dance highlights could be highlighted but one that singularly remains is a ballet duet during which young Billy, through ground fog effect, performs with another version of himself who is years older. Actor Maximilien A. Baud is Older Billy here and the duo is graceful, athletic, and quite sublime.
The musical Billy Elliot has something for nearly everyone and that includes a giant puppet of the head of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The full company opener, after intermission, entitled "Merry-Christmas, Maggie Thatcher" is brisk, funny and filled with enthusiasm.
The Bushnell is a large hall and sitting in the rear portion of the orchestra section of the house affords great perspective on the entire presentation. On the other hand, one cannot discern facial expression from such a distance. The dialect of the particular section of northern England is not always easy to understand.
A great contingent of individuals enable this show to succeed. Many children are featured and virtually all are well-disciplined and quite splendid. Stephen Daldry's direction and Peter Darling's choreography are pinpoint. One could not claim that Elton John's tunes will become classics but his music and Lee Hall's lyrics fit well with the complexity of such a show.
Noah Parets, who is 13, is sometimes appropriately deep-felt and sometimes fittingly ecstatic in a thoroughly engaging turn as Billy. During one sequence, supported by a harness, he flies through the air. At the end of a given number, he seems completely (and not surprisingly) exhausted. As Mrs. Wilkinson, Janet Dickinson is strong, sharp-edged, instructive, and supportive. Rich Hebert (Dad) offers a plaintive version of the ballad, "Deep Into the Ground."
It takes a few minutes, during opening moments, for Billy Elliot to take hold but it then becomes impressively comprehensive. So much is going on: this is a very full musical running close to three hours and it includes many genres. In the end, it is about one eleven year old boy, his quest and evolution. The background is political: people care about what is right and demonstrate with passion. Within that context, tension is present and the result is a rich, invigorating theater experience.
Billy Elliot continues at Hartford's Bushnell through June 23rd. For tickets, visit www.bushnell.org or call (860) 987-5900.
- Fred Sokol