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: Billy Elliot (Broadway in Chicago)

‘Billy Elliot’ shines

 

Emily Skinner, Cesar Corrales and Cast

 
Broadway in Chicago presents
 
Billy Elliot: The Musical
 
Book and lyrics by Lee Hall, music by Elton John
Directed by Stephen Daldry
At the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre
Open run (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

After four Laurence Olivier Awards, ten Tony Awards and ten Drama Desk Awards, you don’t need me to tell you that Billy Elliot: The Musical is worth seeing. Time Magazine also named it the "Best musical of the decade," an assessment I Tommy Batchelor as Billydon’t agree with —  my vote goes to Urinetown — but I will say Billy Elliot has everything a good musical ought to have: Fine music, outstanding choreography and a heartwarming, if clichéd, story full of triumphs and pathos.

Having opened in London in 2005 and on Broadway in 2008, the acclaimed musical has finally come to Chicago, where a stellar cast does it full justice.

Based on Lee Hall’s screenplay for the 2000 film, the plot is one we’ve seen many times before — a talented youth, dancing to his own drummer, beats the odds and makes doubters accept him on his own terms.

In this case, it’s 11-year-old Billy Elliot, son of a British miner, amid the devastating 1984 Coal War in which labor lost its fight against Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government, destroying the miners’ union and all but ending coal mining in the U.K. Billy’s mother is dead; his grandmother is senile; his dad and older brother, Tony, are on strike, along with most of the men in their town; money is short and tempers are flaring. Sent to boxing class, Billy accidentally stumbles into a girls’ ballet lesson and discovers a love and talent for dancing — outraging the men in his life.

It’s a rollercoaster of a story, full of contrasts, at turns funny and sad, raucous and refined, exultant and despondent. Politics, class consciousness, the role of the arts vs. sports, sexual identity all come together, sometimes clashingly. If the bitter defeat of the strike seems an odd match for the bright jubilation of Billy’s triumph, well … it’s a musical.

Peter Darling’s dazzling choreography makes the most of the juxtapositions, as in the brilliantly effective sequences of warring police and angry strikers interspersed with little girls in tutus.

Giuseppe Bausilio and Samuel Pergande J.P. Viernes as Billy
Tommy Batchelor and Ballet Girls Miners Association

Performed by a first-rate orchestra, led by Colin Welford, Elton John’s score, with lyrics by Hall, also brings us some startling contrasts. It runs the gamut from cheerful music-hall ditties to rousing anthems to sad ballads, from joyous to silly to angry, sometimes even in the same song. In an excellent example, one of the few solos, "We’d Go Dancing," Billy’s grandmother — a splendid performance by Cynthia Darlow — recalls her unhappy married life.

On the silly side, we get "Expressing Yourself," a strange sequence in which Billy and his transvestite friend, Michael (played alternately by Keean Johnson and Gabriel Rush), don women’s clothes and then dance with giant headless dresses.

Then there’s the pure joy of "Electricity," Billy’s paean to dancing.

A rotating cast of four boys plays Billy. On opening night, 13-year-old Cesar Corrales showed dazzling talent as a dancer and actor. A breathtaking pas de deux with his older self (onetime Joffrey dancer Samuel Pergande) deservedly drew a standing ovation on opening night.

We also see excellent moves from Emily Skinner as Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy’s pushy ballet teacher, and Blake Hammond as Mr. Braithwaite, her grotty accompanist.

No one in this ensemble puts a foot wrong.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

This musical contains adult language some parents may consider unsuitable for children.

Billy's Under Theatre Lights

 


 

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Billy Elliot announces entire Chicago cast, including 4th Billy

“Billy Elliot” announced Chicago cast

billeyelliott

Including J.P. Viernes as Chicago’s 4th Billy

 

Universal Pictures Stage Productions, Working Title Films and Old Vic Productions in association with Weinstein Live Entertainment, has announced, with Broadway In Chicago, casting for the Chicago production of Billy Elliot the Musical, previews beginning March 18th at the Oriental Theatre; opening night being Sunday, April 11th. The cast includes John Peter (J.P.) Viernes who joins the previously announced actors Tommy Batchelor, Giuseppe Bausilio and Cesar Corrales in the role of ‘Billy’.

Below: 3 of the 4 Billy’s

Cloud Gate

Starring in Billy Elliot are Armand Schultz (Dad); Cynthia Darlow (Grandma); Patrick Mulvey (Tony); Keean Johnson and Gabriel Rush (Michael); Chicagoan Samuel Pergande (Billy’s Older Self); Jim Ortlieb (George); Chicagoan Susie McMonagle (Mum); Chicagoan Blake Hammond (Mr. Braithwaite); and Maria Connelly (Debbie).

Also featured are Matt Allen; Jason Babinsky; Chicagoan Elijah Barker; Madison Barnes; Cindy Benson; Sara Brians; Chicagoan Tony Clarno; Abby Church; Christine DeFillipo; Alexandra Dell’Edera; Faith Fetscher; Susan Haefner; Ryan Kasprzak; Chicagoan Kayla King; Kent Lewis; Will Mann; Kate Marilley; Spencer Milford; Brittany Nicholas; Chicagoan Mark Page; Mitch Poulos; Emily Richardson; Annelise Ritacca; Michaeljon Slinger; Jaclyn Taylor Ruggiero; Jamie Torcellini; Nicholas Torres; Brionna Trilling; and Kayla Vanderbilt. Additional casting will be announced at a later date.


About “Billy Elliot”

Stage DoorBilly Elliot is the funny, heartwarming tale of a young boy with a dream, and a celebration of his triumph against the odds. Set against the historic British miners’ strike of the 1980s, the story follows Billy’s journey as a boy in a small mining town who, after stumbling across a ballet class while on his way to a boxing lesson, realizes that his future lay not in the boxing ring but on stage as a dancer.

Featuring music by Elton John, book and lyrics by Lee Hall, choreographed by Peter Darling and directed by Stephen Daldry, Billy Elliot opened at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre on November 13, 2008 and was the winner of ten 2009 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

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Review: TimeLine Theatre’s “When She Danced”

 TimeLine crafts a superb production from a flawed script

When She Danced at TimeLine Theatre

TimeLine Theatre presents:

When She Danced

by Martin Sherman
directed by Nick Bowling
thru December 20th (ticket info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan

Like its depiction of the Isadora Duncan’s life, When She Danced is a glorious, extravagant mess. Amid a cacophony of languages, lobster, lovers and champagne Timeline creates something that’s both richly entertaining and immensely frustrating with Martin Sherman’s portrait of the mother of modern dance.

"When She Danced" at TimeLine Theatre We know La Duncan (who was called such when the article really meant something, unlike today’s trashy La Lohan vernacular) redefined an entire art form. But because film of her dancing is rare unto non-existent, we can only imagine the extraordinary aura of grace and beauty she projected while in motion, inspiring thousands of barefoot disciples the globe over. That very legacy all but ensures that any portrait of Duncan will fall short. Have an actress attempt to dance like Duncan and they will inevitably suffer by comparison. Leave the dancing out, and you lose the essence of the woman’s existence.

Sherman takes the safer route, leaving the dance completely to his audience’s imagination. Rather than choreography, we get rapt exposition by Duncan’s slavishly devoted household coterie. And of course, the lack of a visual is a problem: because we never see Duncan dance, her art – or the lack thereof – becomes the 800-pound gorilla on the set. Dance is the thing that defines not only Duncan, but every relationship and reaction to her. Without it, those relationships and reactions ring a bit hollow. For those who crave a glimpse at the movement that made the legend, When She Danced is a tease. We hear all about the sheer, life-changing fabulousness of Duncan’s dancing, but we never see it.

That said, director Nick Bowling has crafted an immensely watchable and lavishly beautiful production. We meet Isadora (Jennifer Engstrom) in her 40s. She claims to be past her prime, but in Engstrom’s alternately regal and unabashedly sensual performance, Duncan is every inch magnificent. Her Paris flat is in a state of exuberant and sophisticated chaos. Among the larger-than-life personalities coming and going: Duncan’s much younger Russian husband Sergei (Patrick Mulvey), gleefully capturing an unstable firebrand with little but sex and suicide on the brain); Alexandros Eliopolos, an adoring 19-year-old Greek prodigy pianist (Alejandro Cordoba, a major talent who delivers a concert-level Chopin etude midway through the production); and Miss Hanna Belzer (Janet Ulrich Brooks), a Russian translator whose underwritten role nonetheless becomes an emotional cornerstone thanks to Brooks’ quietly galvanizing performance.

"When She Danced" at TimeLine Theatre when-she-danced-2

The languages – Greek, Russian, English French and Italian – fly fast and thick with several in the ensemble never speaking a word of English. Bowling succeeds in making dialogue flow like music. And it’s to the cast’s great credit that even when the words are foreign, the meaning within them shines through.

It’s a shame that all these wonderfully idiosyncratic, effectively etched characters are stuck in a plot that’s rather static. Duncan’s desperate need for money provides the slight arc. The story peaks with a marvelously unconventional fund-raising dinner party that devolves into a rapturous, multi-lingual food fight. But once the rolls stop flying, Sherman doesn’t seem to know what to do with everyone other than have them fade slowly into a blackout.

In all, Bowling has crafted a superb production from a flawed script. It helps that When She Danced looks wonderful, thanks to Keith Pitts at once elegant, impoverished and richly beautiful Parisian flat. Seth E. Reinick’s evocative lighting beautifully emphasizes monologues by Brooks and Cordoba that come almost as close to portraying Duncan’s brilliance as any actual dancing might. Almost.

When She Danced continues through Dec. 20 at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington. Tickets are $25 and $35. For more information, call 773/281-8463 or go to www.timelinetheatre.com

Rating: ★★½

 

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