Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Some equivocation may be par for the course, though, considering that Billy is just eleven years old (played, in this one-weekend staging at COCA, by the delightful Declan Ryan). And it's all set in 1984, like the movie that inspired it, against a backdrop of striking minersand (in the stage musical version) dancing London bobbies, sent by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, as cartoonish Sharks to their Jets. The book and lyrics are by Lee Hall, with music by Elton John. The labor strife also helps explain the prolonged runtime: as with West Side Story, more than a little time is spent on colorful folk dancing, by strikers and rioters and police. Nancy Bell directs with fine attention to relationships and authenticity; and Christopher Page-Sanders does well with the highly professional adults, and very well with the show's energetic children (COCA is well-known here for its dance classes). But Billy Elliot is also a huge lesson in the changing nature of the economy, and politics. And it's sometimes hard to keep all that afloat.
It's funny, because other shows tackle economics with greater entertainment value. Hands on a Hardbody, The Pajama Game, and Hello, Dolly! make dollars and cents issues seem personal and sprightly, and ultimately populist. As Billy Elliot marks the nonfiction beginning of the end of pay equity in the Western World, economics is merely the dismal science once again.
And yet none of the musical numbers is less than good. A few are actually terrific, thanks to choreographer Page-Sanders and a costuming crew led by Michelle Siler. Billy's introduction to the ballet is a three costume-change extravaganza, where a dance instructor (impeccable Sara Rae Womack) puts him into a spin with a troupe of adorably foul-mouthed little ballerinas, including winsome Jiali Deck as Debby. Parker Collier, admirable as Billy's young friend Michael, leads a huge, spangly musical number about the thrill of cross-dressing, which could rival any Disney animated extravaganza. In quieter moments, Alicia Revé Like is deeply touching as the ghost of Billy's mother, and Duane Martin Foster (as Billy's father) begins as perfectly stoic, gradually becoming a stammering bundle of nerves near the end, as Billy confronts a very different future from his own.
One of Mr. Foster's dramatic moments was not sufficiently entertaining for the lady in front of me, who once again began text-messaging a woman experimenting with a ponytail, even as Billy's dad pondered his own bad life decisions. It's funny how you forget these audience misbehaviors after an eighteen month-long pandemic. The nice lady who gave the curtain speech before-hand similarly forgot the usual warning about cell phone usage during the performance, during her remarks. But it wouldn't have totally solved the problem, as two young women later entered during the show, after a musical number, squeezing into their seats at front row center. The pair then proceeded to play with their large, brightly lit cell phones for much of the first act. Where is Patti LuPone when you need her?
Full disclosure: Declan Ryan is the youngest son of a pair of theater people I enjoyed performing with 20 years ago, though I've only rarely seen them since those days. Here, the youngest Ryan weaves a spell, using simple but true emotions under the direction of the much-admired Nancy Bell. And by the time Billy is auditioning for the Royal Dance Academy in London ("Electricity"), I'd totally forgotten the performer's very professional lineage, and simply marveled at a shimmering new talent.
But there are two grim musical numbers after that, as the three-hour mark for the evening looms. And, as the mood turns bleak once more, we begin to feel like a canary in the coal mine: overcome by invisible gasses. Everyone in this local production has risen fully to the challenge. It is the challenge itself, for society, the economy and politics, which remains painfully in doubt.
Billy Elliot runs through August 1, 2021, at the Center of Contemporary Arts, 524 Trinity Ave., St. Louis MO. There is a new, free parking garage right across the little street. For more information visit www.cocastl.org