review by Michelle Parks
FAYETTEVILLE — A mineworkers union strike in the 1980s in a village in northern England sounds like a fine scenario for a theatrical piece.
But when it’s woven together with a story about a boy, his family and community — and is enhanced with music by Elton John and spectacular dance numbers — it becomes something else altogether.
The touring production of “Billy Elliot: The Musical” opened Tuesday night (Dec. 4) to an enthusiastic crowd at the Walton Arts Center. Evening performances continue through Sunday, with afternoon matinees Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $59 to $73.
Each night, one of three different youngsters plays the role of Billy Elliot. For opening night, Noah Parets very ably filled the character’s street and dancing shoes.
In this tale, based on a true story, Billy’s dad and brother work in the coal mines, and they’re among the union members on strike when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher threatened to close the mines. The show covers the year that they’re on strike, barely getting by and depending on other working people in the community to sustain them.
The nearly three-hour musical is based on the 2000 film. The book and lyrics for the musical are by Lee Hall, who wrote the film’s screenplay. The subject is serious, but the show has a lot of humor, hope and heart. It’s easy to see how it won 10 Tony Awards, including “Best Musical,” in 2009.
Billy, who’d been taking boxing lessons with the other boys of his village, stayed behind one day to practice his uppercut punches. He was bombarded by a ballet classes taught by Mrs. Wilkinson. Despite initial reluctance, Billy showed a propensity and affinity for dance.
For the most part, the set and the costumes had a dull tone, evoking the dirtiness of a coal town, and the drab outlook for the characters’ future. And, the set pulled apart in sections and rolled around or off stage as needed, allowing the easy change from ballet studio to union hall to home to village streets.
As the crotchety Mrs. Wilkinson, played by Janet Dickinson, took 11-year-old Billy on as a student, she and he both knew that dancing just might get him out of this town and on to a better future. There were many fantastic moments as Billy gradually improved his dance skills, working alongside a room full of girls in tutus.
Patrick Wetzel was hilarious as Mr. Braithwaite, the piano accompanist during ballet class. He also busted out some dance moves of his own, providing some laugh-out-loud moments. Later, Billy and Mr. Braithwaite amazed the crowd by tap dancing while jumping rope.
Some of the best moments of the musical were melancholy and reflective. Billy’s grandma, played by Patti Perkins, told Billy the frank truth about her 33-year marriage to his grandfather. Though using language and gestures unbecoming to many grandmothers, she wore a pink sparkly dress as she sang and danced for “We’d Go Dancing” — for an overall brilliant, endearing result.
Cursing and violence are sprinkled throughout the show, from characters of all ages. But it fits the time and theme completely. And at times, it’s the funniest comic relief for such a dire situation.
Throughout the show, Billy talked with the ghost or memory of his dead mother. Billy’s dad, played by Rich Hebert, offered a lovely song mourning his dead wife.
When Billy danced, he wasn’t just dancing. He was expressing and dealing with some complex emotions related to missing his mother, seeing his family struggle and watching the town he was raised in on the brink of dissolution. The 13-year-old Parets embodied those angsty feelings very well.
The ballet teacher encouraged Billy to audition for the Royal Ballet School, which he finally did — only after his dad warmed up to the idea, realizing it was his son’s chance at a life different from his own. In his teacher, Billy finds a nurturing force who sees his potential.
In a fun number, “Expressing Yourself,” Billy went to visit his pal Michael, played by Cameron Clifford. Billy found him dressing up in his sister’s clothes, and the pair eventually both donned skirts as they tap danced and shimmied their shoulders.
The drama and violence of the striking mineworkers battling police officers was contrasted with the hope and innocence of dance. The lines of grown men literally confronted each other as they danced with the youngsters in the ballet class. This choreography was simple and powerful as they all sang “Solidarity.”
In a truly magical scene, a dream sequence, Billy danced a beautiful ballet to “Swan Lake” with an older version of himself, played by Noah Long.
Though Billy’s dad was against Billy dancing, the dad realized during one song that “he could go and he could shine, not just stay here counting time.” It could be his son’s way out.
And, in “Electricity,” Billy sang and danced as he explained how dancing made him feel — a combination of fear and freedom, confusion and flying. Parets, as Billy, seemed so comfortable in moments like these where he just danced.
This is a difficult and beautiful story about family and community coming together to care for one another, and to hope for something better than their current reality. And, it’s a story about dreaming a dream that might seem impossible.