Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
The scene setting begins immediately as director-choreographer Matthew Gardiner brings the audience into the coal mines of northern England, joining a company of miners in grimy orange coveralls and hard hats with lanterns, going through a synchronized dance-work routine and singing about the bonds that keep them together. The year is 1984 and the miners are about to go on strike, fighting back against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's austerity efforts.
Billy (Liam Redford, who alternates with Owen Tabaka) is 11 years old, being raised by his father (Chris Genebach) after the death of his mother (Crystal Mosser). His hotheaded brother Tony (Sean Watkinson) has already joined their father in the mines, but Billy's future is uncertain. Beyond that, he doesn't like going to boxing class each week and is captivated by a ballet class led by no-nonsense Mrs. Wilkinson (Nancy Anderson).
Redford is a real find: a young performer with natural charm, a sweet singing voice, an ease onstage, and also a powerful dancer. He's never less than compelling, whether he's goofing with his friend Michael (charmer Jacob Thomas Anderson), burning off steam in an "Angry Dance" on a stage filled with riot policemen, or literally becoming airborne while performing a bit of "Swan Lake."
Anderson's multilayered performance shows how her character, worn out from years of trying to teach girls to dance regardless of whether they have any aptitude or skill, realizes that Billy is capable of greatness. She clearly displays her shifting emotions on her face. Genebach focuses on the tenderness he feels toward Billyhe wants to protect his son from what he considers certain disappointmentso his moments of anger become understandable. Catherine Flye sparkles as Billy's sweetly addled grandmother, who shares how dancing took her away from the poverty and violence of her everyday life.
The show, which won the 2009 Tony Award for Best Musical, is Elton John's best Broadway score (better than Aida, which won him a Tony for best score in 2000), well suited to the characters and situations, with pungent, often profane lyrics by Lee Hall. (Hall also wrote the book, based on his own 2000 screenplay.) Much of the dramatic staging and choreography depend on the placement of the songs, notably "Solidarity," where the young ballet students weave among the picketing miners as police stare down at them from raised openings in the rear wall.
Kathleen Geldard's costumes evoke the 1980s with humor, especially Anderson's high-cut leotard and the dancers' legwarmers, and Amanda Zieve's lighting design fills out the scenes beyond Sherwood's small, atmospheric pieces of scenery. Tom Vendafreddo, who conducts from the keyboard, and eight other musicians provide a surprisingly rich sound for a small ensemble.