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Regional Reviews: Boston

Billy Elliot The Musical

Kylend Hetherington
Billy Elliot speaks to the dreamers among us and shows how one boy can overcome parental prejudice, community derision, and economic hardship by staying true to his passion. Billy's passion is dance—ballet, in particular—and the creative team behind Billy Elliot The Musical wisely and imaginatively weaves the story and heightens the emotional stakes through the eclectic choreography of Peter Darling. Winner of ten 2009 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, the stage show (based on the 2000 film written by Lee Hall and directed by Stephen Daldry) was directed by Daldry and features Book and Lyrics by Hall and Music by Sir Elton John.

The story is set in a coal-mining village in Northern England as the historic 1984 miners' strike kicks off in Great Britain. Juxtaposed with the political upheaval wrought by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the devastating effects on the lifestyle of the proud working class townspeople, Billy's awakening and pursuit of his dream become a beacon of light that leads everyone through the darkness that threatens to engulf them. Adrift following the death of his mother, the twelve-year old boy stumbles from after-school boxing instruction into an all-girl ballet class where the hard-edged teacher Mrs. Wilkinson notices his potential and takes him under her wing.

Janet Dickinson's portrayal of the been-around-the-block Wilkinson is magnetic. She nails the cynical characteristics of a woman who has watched her artistic dreams slip out of her grasp, settling for the 50 pence she collects weekly from each of her unpromising students, and underplays the vicarious stirrings she feels for what the future may hold for Billy. She plays her hand beautifully as she reels him in, nourishing him as muse and surrogate mother, while championing his cause with the boy's obstinate father. Dickinson has strong vocals and gets the chance to strut her stuff with Billy and her scruffy accompanist Mr. Braithwaite (Job Christenson) in "Born to Boogie."

Billy lives with his Dad (Rich Hebert) and older brother Tony (Cullen R. Titmas), both miners involved in the strike, and his quirky Grandma (Patti Perkins). His late Mum (Kat Hennessey) makes a couple of appearances when Billy seeks solace and strength from a letter she wrote him before her death. It is the women in his life who give him the warmth and compassion he needs to follow his heart's desire, while his gruff father and hothead brother try to mold him in their image and make a man out of him. Hebert and Titmas convey the anger and fear of men in jeopardy of losing their livelihood, but neither telegraphs an underlying soft spot for Billy, so it comes out of left field when their antipathy turns to support.

Due to the demands of playing the role of Billy, four boys (Ben Cook, Kylend Hetherington, Zach Manske and Noah Parets, from Sharon, Massachusetts) alternate in the part and the nod went to Hetherington on opening night. He is a natural, commanding the stage as the center of attention, and displays exquisite dance skills across the spectrum of ballet, tap and acrobatics. Although he strays off-key on a few occasions, his singing voice is of the altar boy variety and captures the emotion of Hall's lyrics and John's compositions. The chemistry he shares with the rest of the cast belies the fact that he is not onstage eight times per week and underscores the polished professionalism of this touring troupe.

Two actors also switch off as Billy's outrageous friend Michael and we had the distinct pleasure of viewing Cameron Clifford's performance at the press opening (Ethan Major is the other Michael). This young spark plug is a scene stealer and combines with Hetherington for the showstopper "Expressing Yourself." I only wish he had more stage time. Samantha Blaire Cutler as Mrs. Wilkinson's foot-stomping daughter Debbie and Regan Mason Haley as pie-consuming Tracey Atkinson stand out in the ethnically diverse field of ballet girls who add comic relief and truly "Shine" in their moments in the spotlight. Cal Alexander (Small Boy) doesn't say much, but his ubiquitous presence draws attention and charms the audience.

I don't think it is possible to heap too much praise on Darling's choreography and suggest that his contribution matches that of John's amazing score to convert Billy Elliot successfully from screen to stage. Without the plot and character development he achieves in "Solidarity," we'd have very little understanding of the mindset of the miners and the divisiveness caused in the community by the strike, and Darling dramatically showcases two very different aspects of Billy's inner life with tap in "Angry Dance" and with ballet in the cathartic "Electricity." By using props such as chairs, nightsticks and helmets, the dances performed by the brutish miners and police become organic representations of their normal activities, adding truth to the Ted Shawn sentiment that "dance is the only art of which we ourselves are the stuff of which it is made."

The moveable set design by Ian MacNeil allows the Elliot kitchen and Billy's loft bedroom to morph easily into the community hall, and it all recedes neatly to clear the stage for the big dance numbers. Nicky Gillibrand has costumed the dancers and miners appropriately, implying the economic stress by wear and tear, and lighting by Rick Fisher adds emotional impact to many of the scenes. Paul Arditti's sound design provides a good mix for music and voices. The spoken Northern English dialect is often difficult to grasp, but not for lack of sound clarity.

Winning ten Tony awards would be a good indication that Billy Elliot is a better than average musical. The book tells a clear story and creates relatable characters with an emphasis on the value of family and community and the importance of following one's dreams. The magic comes from turning the whole thing into a celebration of dance and using the multitude of dance forms to carry the story and define the characters, all the way through to the curtain call. You won't want to miss the curtsies and bows at the end of this one.

Billy Elliot The Musical Lexus Broadway in Boston Series presents performances of the National Tour through August 19 at the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston, MA; Tickets 1-800-982-2787 or Based on the Universal Pictures/Studio Canal Film. Directed by Stephen Daldry, Choreography by Peter Darling, Book and Lyrics by Lee Hall, Music by Elton John, Music Direction by Susan Draus, Set Design by Ian MacNeil, Costume Design by Nicky Gillibrand, Lighting Design by Rick Fisher, Sound Design by Paul Arditti; Production Stage Manager, Joel Rosen. For more information on the tour, please visit

Cast: Janet Dickinson, Rich Hebert, Patti Perkins, Cullen R. Titmas; Introducing Ben Cook, Kylend Hetherington, Zach Manske, Noah Parets alternating in the role of Billy; with Joel Blum, Cameron Clifford, Ethan Major, Samantha Blaire Cutler, Kat Hennessey, Maximilien A. Baud, Job Christenson, Mitch Poulos, Cal Alexander, Madison Barnes, Michael Biren, Damien Brett, Sasha Ely-Judkins, Tim Funnell, Richard Gatta, Regan Mason Haley, Christopher M. Howard, Cara Kjellman, Patrick Lavallee, Kent M. Lewis, David Light, Rebecca Marlowe, Morgan Martin, Joel Newsome, Adam Pelty, Jeffrey Pew, Jillian Rees-Brown, Alison Solomon, Brionna Trilling, Genai Veal, Lexi Viernes, Olivia Wang, Thad Turner Wilson, Natalie Wisdom, Danielle Victoria Znutas

Photo: Kyle Froman

- Nancy Grossman

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