Musicals don’t get much bigger or more spectacular than the international smash Billy Elliot, a nearly three-hour song-and-dance extravaganza that never forgets that it is, at heart, the intimate story of a boy who, in the words of Gene Kelly, has simply “Gotta Dance.”

L.A./Orange County audiences now have the next two weeks to experience the laughter, the tears, the thrills, and the sheer joy that is Billy, winner of ten 2009 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Direction of a Musical, and in a Broadway first, a Best Leading Actor Tony awarded to all three Broadway Billys.

Samantha Blaire Cutler (Debbie), Janet Dickinson (Mrs. Wilkinson) and Noah Parets (Billy) in “Billy Elliot the Musical.”  Photo by Amy Boyle (Noah Parets as Billy)

Movie buffs will recall Billy Elliot as the eleven-year-old protagonist of Stephen Daldry’s 2000 film of the same name. Both movie and musical take us back to northern England circa 1984, when the National Union of Mineworkers declared a nationwide strike, one whose consequences for both union and miners ended up dire indeed.

Lee Hall’s Tony-winning Best Book focuses on the strike’s effects on one County Durham family, made up of motherless Billy, his coal miner father, older brother Tony (also a miner), and a Grandma who keeps misplacing her pasties. (No, she’s not a stripper. Pasties are meat and vegetable filled pastries in Cornwall and its environs.)

Ben Cook (Billy), Cal Alexander (Small Boy) and Joel Blum (George) in “Billy Elliot the Musical.”  Photo by Amy Boyle (Ben Cook as Billy)

When Billy happens one evening to stumble into the ballet class which follows the boxing lessons his dad is making him take, a passion for dance is ignited in the young boy that will change his and his family’s lives forever.

Whereas the movie version of Billy Elliot had Billy dancing to ‘80s hits like T. Rex’s “Get It On (Bang a Gong)” and “I Love To Boogie,” Billy Elliot The Musical features an entirely new set of songs by Elton John and lyricist Hall, and what songs they are, many of them going on for eight minutes or more, each a mini-musical with its own story to tell.

The company of “Billy Elliot the Musical.” Photo by Michael Brosilow “The Stars Look Down” introduces us to Billy’s cast of characters on the eve of the Miners’ Strike 1984. “Shine” takes us from Billy’s accidental arrival in ballet class to his realization that maybe, just maybe, dance can give his dreary life some of the “old razzle dazzle” ballet instructor Mrs. Wilkinson is singing about. “Solidarity” superimposes striking miners, baton-wielding police officers, and a ballet classful of little girls (and a lone boy) to breathtaking effect.

Along the way, Billy makes friends with Michael, a boy who likes nothing better than to try on his mum’s clothes, and who informs Billy in song and dance that there’s nothing wrong with “Expressing Yourself,” as celebratory a declaration of individuality as they come, and one which has Billy, Michael, and a bevy of inanimate dresses-come-to-life tap, tap, tapping to Peter Darling’s Tony-winning choreography.

Janet Dickinson (Mrs. Wilkinson), Drew Minard (Billy), Samantha Blaire Cutler (Debbie) and the cast of “Billy Elliot the Musical.”  Photo by Amy Boyle (Drew Minard as Billy)

And speaking of choreography, Darling has Billy, Mrs. Wilkinson, and ballet class pianist Mr. Braithwaite discovering that they were “Born To Boogie”; the entire cast doing their best holiday footwork as they send yuletide greetings (and a death wish) to Madam PM in “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher”; and Billy expressing his rage and frustration at being trapped in a town he’s already too big for in “Angry Dance,” a production number featuring miners, scabs, cops, and Billy that brings Act One to a thrilling emotional climax.

One of Billy Elliot’s most stirring moments comes when we see Billy and his “Older Self” dancing side-by-side to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and dance performances don’t get more electric than Billy’s audition number for the London’s Royal Ballet School, “Electricity.”

Last but not least comes the evening’s grand finale, “Company Celebration,” that has Billy Elliot’s entire cast dancing in … No, I’m not going to spoil the surprise.

Director Daldry and his creative partners never let us forget that Billy Elliot is at heart the story of a boy and his damaged but not irreparably broken family in quiet songs like Grandma’s bittersweet “We’d Go Dancing,” Billy and his late mum’s heart-wrenching “Dear Billy,” and Dad’s sad declaration of lost love, “Deep In The Ground.”

Rich Hebert (Dad) and Mitchell Tobin (Billy) in “Billy Elliot the Musical.”  Photo by Amy Boyle (Mitchell Tobin as Billy)

Ben Cook, Drew Minard, Noah Parets, and Mitchell Tobin alternate in the role of Billy, and if Parets’ stellar triple-threat performance on Opening Night is an indication of the caliber of all four boys’ work (as I suspect it is), audiences are in for the year’s most memorable child star turn, no matter which date or time they attend.

Janet Dickinson (Mrs. Wilkinson) in “Billy Elliot the Musical.” Photo by Doug Blemker Janet Dickenson is a feisty, foul-mouthed, and absolutely fabulous Mrs. Wilkinson; Rich Hebert makes for a dynamic, deeply felt Dad; Patti Perkins is irrepressibly winning as Billy’s quirky Grandma; Cullen R. Titums captures all of older brother Tony’s rage and frustration to powerful effect; Kilty Reidy is a tap-dancing surprise as Mr. Braithwaite; and (at the performance reviewed) Jake Kitchin couldn’t be more delightful as Billy’s bestie Michael. (Kitchin alternates with Sam Poon in the roles of Michael and Tall Boy/Posh Boy, with Poon playing the latter two on Opening Night.)

The community in “Billy Elliot the Musical.”  Photo by Kyle Froman As for the rest of the cast, superlatives are in order for Joel Blum (George), Samantha B. Cutler (Debbie), Maximilien A. Baud (Older Billy/Scottish Dancer), Craig Bennett (Big Davey), and Molly Garner (Mum), and ensemble members Paul Aguirre, Cal Alexander (Small Boy), Madison Barnes (Ballet Girl), Damien Brett (Accordion Specialty), Jhailyn Farcon (Ballet Girl), Tim Funnell (Scab/Posh Dad), Christopher M. Howard, Danielle Kelsey (Lesley), acro captain Patrick LaVallee, David Light (Pit Official, Cara Massey (Clipboard Woman), Kaitlyn Mueller (Ballet Girl), Joel Newsome (Mr. Wilkinson), Brittany Nicholas (Ballet Girl), Yanna Nikitas (Ballet Girl), Jeffrey Pew, Jillian Rees-Brown, swing Alison Solomon (Tracey Atkinson), Carly Tamer (Ballet Girl), and Brionna Trilling (Ballet Girl).

Additional 2009 Tonys were awarded, and deservedly so, to orchestrator Martin Koch, scenic designer Ian McNeil, lighting designer Rick Fisher, and sound designer Paul Arditti, all of whose superb work is on display in this First National Tour, as are Nicky Gillibrand’s Tony-nominated costumes.

Music director Bill Congdon conducts the tour’s terrific ten-piece pit orchestra, featuring Congdon on keyboards accompanied by four touring and five local musicians.

Additional program credits are too numerous to mention here, though mention must be surely be made of production stage manager Gregory R. Covert.

The remaining months of 2013 have the Segerstrom Center For The Arts welcoming the National Tours of Flashdance, Catch Me If You Can, Sister Act, Anything Goes, Priscilla Queen Of The Desert, and Evita, and no one is more excited about their upcoming arrival than this reviewer. Still, as last night’s Opening Night performance made abundantly clear, Billy Elliot is in a class by itself, and that goes for both the musical, and the extraordinary boy whose name it bears.

Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
April 16, 2013
Photos: Amy Boyle, Doug Blemker, Michael Brosilow, Kyle Froman

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