Essay-Review: Billy Elliot – A teaching moment?

Miners Association

Billy Elliot: A teaching moment?

 

 

J.P. Viernes as Billyby Paige Listerud

There shouldn’t be any trouble with the critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning show Billy Elliot, but there is. Simply put, the music – composed by Elton John – is gorgeous, the songs, memorable. The dialogue is, by turns, funny and frank—at appropriate moments brutally unsentimental and at others deeply touching. Under Stephen Daldry’s cunning direction, Billy Elliot successfully veers from hardcore expressionism to utter escapist fantasy. It’s a heartwarming tale about a child achieving his dreams against horrendous odds. All the same, while stuffed to the gills with sterling inter-generational talent, this multilayered production just isn’t putting bums in the seats at the Oriental Theatre the way Wicked did. Broadway in Chicago invited us to its “bloggers’ bash” last Thursday, no doubt to generate a fresh injection of press. Yet, shockingly, little more than half the theater was filled on a Thursday night.

So just what is the trouble with Billy?

  • Its rough language turns off too many parents. Hard to believe that this could be a concern in an urban setting, but this is the Midwest. Marketing Billy Elliot as a family show because of its plethora of child talent may have crashed on the reefs of American conservatism over language. Certainly the movie version, when it came to the US, received an R rating for adult language, which later transformed to a PG-13 rating upon DVD release. Much as I might wish that both parents and children could appreciate the touch of realism that Lee Hall has scripted for his Northern industrial English town, my sentiments may be completely overridden by parents not wanting one more cultural inducement for their kids to engage in verbal shock and awe.
  • It’s the economy stupid. Say what you want about uplifting messages about a talented dancing boy achieving his dreams, Billy Elliot is dark. Billy (J.P. Viernes for our performance) makes it to the Royal Ballet in London, but his small town community is going down. It’s 1984 and Margaret Thatcher is shutting down the UK’s national coal mining industry in favor of cheap coal from the Eastern bloc states. 300,000 jobs are all going bye-bye–forever. Try wringing a positive message out of that scenario as America double dips into the Great Recession (Great Depression for people of color) and the Democrats lose the gains they made in Congress two years ago.

So it’s not just the dirty words—Billy Elliot is crashing on the reefs of America’s economic and political turmoil. Would that the show itself could be a teaching moment about the value of survival in hard times. The trouble is that the only person surviving decently is Billy . . . and he survives because he is exceptionally talented, because his talent holds youthful promise, and because his future career is in the arts, not coal mining. The UK still subsidizes the arts far more than the US—but even that funding is facing a 25% cut under the current government.

Emily Skinner, Cesar Corrales and CastWhat may be an even more important point, emotionally and dramatically speaking, is that Billy is a lonely survivor. The production creates an infinitely potent moment of loss and isolation with the number “Once We Were Kings.” The miners, defeated after their struggle with the Thatcher government, descend into the darkness of the mining pit with only the lights on their helmets showing. Billy watches them depart—his own shadow cast long, black and solitary behind him. One way of life is ending while Billy’s is just beginning. Melancholy infuses Billy’s singular success at the Royal  Ballet. Billy makes his escape to London—but he cannot take the rest of his family or community with him.

Sadly, this just may be more realism than American audiences are ready to pay for in our country’s present situation. Ironically, Billy Elliot is just as much about human beings resorting to fantasy as a way to cope with hard times. This production contains incredible moments of fun and beautiful fantasy. Billy’s dance number with his young friend Michael (Dillon Stevens), complete with a cadre of 20-foot tap-dancing dress, is a flight into reverie over the joy of women’s clothing for the young cross-dresser. Other fantasy moments expand into profound theatrical expressions.

J.P. Viernes and Samuel PergandeOne of the deep pleasures of this production, over and above the movie version, is that we do not actually witness Billy as an adult ballet star. Future success is only hinted at during Billy’s dance with his older self (Samuel Pergande) to the music of Swan Lake. Peter Darling’s choreography and Rick Fisher’s lighting design evoke a scene that recalls William Wordsworth’s “The Child is Father of the Man.” The audience is moved to hope and dream with Billy because it can glimpse the fulfillment of his human potential through Viernes and Pergande’s grace and control.

Darling’s choreography even makes profound social statements about the nature of children’s lives under violent labor-busting conditions. The dance number “Solidarity” is by far the high point of the show. Darling intricately weaves together the feminine setting of Mrs. Wilkinson’s dance class with the outer masculine sparring between miners and police. Billy may tussle with the girls to keep up with Mrs. Wilkinson’s dance orders, but the children seem protected and separate from the struggle that is determining the course of their lives. Darling’s choreography stunningly reveals just how illusory separation is. It brings together the two disparate worlds of Billy’s universe and the lyrics of the song even comment on the blue-collar connections between the police and the striking miners. That’s a lot to achieve in one number and the cast pulls it off fantastically.

In fact, let’s just say here that every dance number is fantastic. Only the first act finale, “Angry Dance” pales, seeming rather anti-climactic, compared to the rest. Billy’s secret ballet lessons with Mrs. Wilkinson (Emily Skinner) have been exposed. Billy’s Dad (Armand Schulz) has just forbidden both them and his chance to audition at the Royal Ballet in London. So far as Billy’s family and the other miners are concerned, ballet is for “poofs.” Billy’s angry dance afterwards meshes with the violence erupting in town, since the police have just violently attacked Billy’s brother Tony (Patrick Mulvey – see picture below the fold).

Tommy Batchelor and Police Shields But once again, the choreography positions Billy as a lonely warrior against forces beyond his control. He alone faces a line of riot police with their ominous shields. Even as symbolism, the image is heavy-handed. Surely the rage and bloodshed that the whole community faces is worth some representation on stage. Having set Billy up as the boy who is “different” from the rest—because of his love for dance–he cannot at this point stand in for the whole community. As much as Fisher’s stark, expressionist lighting packs a powerful punch, the act of isolating Billy as if he were the only one suffering diminishes the powerful communal statement of the entire production and does not cleanly communicate Billy’s rage.

  • Billy is different from other boys. Billy is tacitly queer. Could the social conservatism of Billy’s mining town, circa 1984, have its mirror reflection in the urban and suburban environs of 2010 Chicago? That’s difficult to say. So long as documentaries like Straight-laced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up reveal kids being harassed and bullied just for wearing scarves or pastel colors; so long as youngsters commit suicide because of anti-gay harassment at school – messages that promote tolerance regarding sexual identity and gender expression will always be needed in America.

A message of acceptance and tolerance, of appreciating differences, not denying, hiding or shunning them—this is the core message of Billy Elliot. One wonders whether this message, too, has been overwhelmed by our current economic troubles. Billy needs to escape the economic reality that his family and community confront. But the cost to him seems to be any close association with family and community. Few moments inspire more than when, not only Billy’s family realizes that he has to have his chance, but the entire community of rough and rugged miners offer up what little money they have left to get him to his audition in London. At that moment, Billy’s queerness seems to make no difference and their funding of his aspirations becomes their last, noble expression of “Solidarity Forever.”

Billy makes it out because of his exceptional talent. Heaven help the poor queer kid in a rough mining town who is simply average. At the end of the show, Billy gives his queer buddy, Michael, a goodbye peck on the cheek. Heaven help Michael because his community’s homophobia is not over and done with, whatever they have done for Billy. Michael still has to grow into queer adulthood. On top of that, he now has to grow up with extreme economic disadvantages to himself, his family, and his community—something that won’t make the homophobia go away. One of the terrifying things about economic crises is that people often go looking for an Other to scapegoat—whether that Other is queer, immigrant, or a member of a minority.

Is Billy Elliot’s message of acceptance, then, too narrow for our times? What one has with Billy’s acceptance by his family, the endorsement of his community, and with Billy and Michael’s own personal self-acceptance, is a brief respite from the punishing restrictions of sexuality and gender prejudice. It hardly seems enough in the face of government-sponsored economic terrorism–but they have to make do with what they have. And so do we.

Right now, that may not be enough for the American public, at least in terms of entertainment. Billy Elliot is such a big, rich and complex musical treat but it cannot do it all. One can only hope that this superb production has what it takes to survive the current climate.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Billy Elliot is currently playing at the Ford Center/Oriental Theatre through January 15. Individual tickets range in price from $30 to $100, and can be bought at all Broadway in Chicago box offices (24 W. Randolph, 151 W. Randolph and 18 W. Monroe), the Broadway in Chicago ticket line at 800-775-2000, all Ticketmaster retail locations (including Hot Tix), and online at www.BroadwayinChicago.com. For groups of 15 or more, call 312-977-1710.  For more information, visit www.BillyElliotChicago.com.

Corrales, Skinner, Hammond and Ballet Girls

 

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Review: A Memory of Two Mondays (Eclipse Theatre)

Attention Must Be Paid—to the Monday Blues

If I stress the various facets of unhappiness, it is because I believe unhappiness should be studied very carefully . . . This certainly is no time for anyone to pretend to be happy, or to put his unhappiness away in the dark. You must watch your universe as it cracks above your head.

Paul Bowles

Eclipse Theatre's "A Memory of Two Monday" is now playing at the Greenhouse Theater Center through October 17th

   
Eclipse Theatre presents
   
A Memory of Two Mondays
   
Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by
Steven Fedoruk
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through October 17  |  tickets: $25  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

A Memory of Two Mondays is Arthur Miller’s one-act dirge to the boulevard of broken American dreams. Don’t go to Eclipse Theatre’s production at the Greenhouse Theater Center without reflecting on the rainy days and Monday morning workdays that always get you down. Set in the Great Depression of Miller’s youth, one observes this play’s dysfunctional workplace, set in an automobile parts warehouse, in the complete knowledge that these are the lucky ones. These people have jobs. As dead- end as those jobs may be, as crappy the conditions, and as ineffectual as the Eclipse Theatre's "A Memory of Two Monday" is now playing at the Greenhouse Theater Center through October 17thmanagement is under a callous boss, a dead-end job is still better than the joblessness that leads one to Hooverville or to standing in bread lines.

Director Steven Fedoruk’s cast sails through the impressionist style of Miller’s script. What a good thing his slight-of-hand control is, since this particular workplace borders on the madhouse. Seen through the eyes of Bert (Brandon Ruiter), a hopeful young man saving up for his college education, all the habits, experiences, idiosyncrasies and neuroses of his co-workers at first seem funny, fascinating, interesting, bizarre or clownish. But soon it becomes clear that the daily grind of meaningless work, rotten conditions, poverty wages, and no real future is getting to everyone.

On top of that, let’s just say the management style for this workplace is extremely loose. Raymond (Kevin Scott) has absolutely no say in who gets hired or fired. Even a raging alcoholic like Tom (Malcolm Callan), who has to be propped up, catatonic, at his desk until he revives, gets a second chance. Meanwhile, the razor-sharp Larry (Josh Venditti), who knows the location of every part in the shop, languishes bitterly without promotion. Those critical decisions remain the province of Mr. Eagle (Joel Reitsma), the absentee business owner. Heaven only knows where he goes golfing while his workers run amok and his business’s infrastructure, slowly but surely, crumbles into dust.

Beyond the insanity of Bert’s work situation, we witness the terrible loss of time, of one’s dreams, one’s mind, and one’s life in this terrible place. For the workers, decades go by in which nothing changes. It’s as if drudgery and inertia have the hypnotic power to hold everyone under a spell. Kenneth (J.P. Pierson), newly arrived from Ireland, is full of poetry, song and culture when Bert first makes friends with him at the warehouse. But through mindless work, hopelessness and the pervasive materialism of American culture he loses it all, like sand draining away.

Eclipse Theatre's "A Memory of Two Monday" is now playing at the Greenhouse Theater Center through October 17th Eclipse Theatre's "A Memory of Two Monday" is now playing at the Greenhouse Theater Center through October 17th

One could write off each and every one of these characters as losers but Miller won’t allow it. A Memory of Two Mondays is not a great Miller work. It’s a one-act trying to do too much in a small space of time with recurrent Miller themes. It carries potent echoes of Death of a Salesman. “I don’t get it,” mourns Bert, on the verge of leaving for college, “How is it me that gets out? There ought to be a statue in the park. To all the ones that stayed.” Attention must be paid.

Attention must be paid but not to the young hero who leaves for a brighter future. That’s the Billy Elliot story. No. Attention must be paid to those who slog on against horrible odds, whose future is unglamorous, and whose work will never win them a spot in the limelight or public honor. Attention must be paid to people whose work is more essential to building a nation than a politician’s career or a pop star’s brief fame.

Miller’s watchful eye is always on the fear, the desperation, and the blighted potential that are the dark side of the American Dream. But more often than not he watches, not with an eye of criticism, but with an eye of compassion.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   
     

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