Few Broadway shows of recent years combine the drama, the laughter, the heart, and the emotional punch of Billy Elliot The Musical, now playing at the La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts. Factor in the music of Sir Elton John, brilliantly original direction and choreography by La Mirada’s very own Brian Kite and Dana Solimando, and a cast who prove that nobody does it better than our SoCal triple-threats and you’ve got not only the first Must-See big-stage musical of 2015, you will likely find yourself waiting a good long while before any other locally-staged musical achieves the heights to which Billy—at one point quite literally—soars.
International smashes don’t get much bigger or more spectacular than Billy Elliot The Musical, 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.”
Southern California audiences who missed out on the laughter, the tears, the thrills, and the sheer joy (whether on Broadway or National Tour) can now catch the winner of ten 2009 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, in McCoy Rigby Entertainment’s brand spanking new production, one that more than matches the brilliance of previous Kite-Solimando collaborations Les Misérables, Spring Awakening, and Miss Saigon.
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 (Mitchell Tobin), his coal-mining father and older brother (David Atkinson as Dad and Stephen Weston as Tony), and a Grandma (Marsha Waterbury) who keeps misplacing her pasties*.
When Billy happens one evening to stumble into the little girls’ “bally” class which follows the boxing lessons his dad is making him take, a passion for the ballet 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 Sir Elton 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 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 (Vicki Lewis) is singing about. “Solidarity” superimposes striking miners, baton-wielding police officers, a ballet classful of little girls, and a caught-in-the-crossfire Billy to breathtaking effect.
Along the way, Billy makes friends with Michael (Jake Kitchin), 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 and Michael cavorting to Solimando’s as always exciting choreography, like Kite’s direction no carbon copy of the Broadway original but a fresh new vision by two of our finest SoCal talents. (Whereas Broadway had a tap-dancing Billy and Michael backed a bevy of inanimate dresses-come-to-life, Solimando turns “Expressing Yourself” into a Busby Berkeley-style top-hat-and-tails show-stopper.)
And speaking of choreography, Solimando has Billy, Mrs. Wilkinson, and ballet class pianist Mr. Braithwaite (Neil Dale) 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 the Adult Billy (Brandon Forrest) he will become dancing to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, including some stupendous high flying (choreographed by Paul Rubin) that tops even Peter Pan’s, and dance performances don’t get more electric than Billy’s audition number for London’s Royal Ballet School, “Electricity.”
Last but not least comes the evening’s grand finale, one that has Billy Elliot’s entire cast dancing in … No, I’m not going to spoil the surprise.
As in Les Miz and Miss Saigon, director Kite keeps the focus on the personal regardless of the surrounding spectacle, never letting us forget that Billy Elliot is at heart the story of a boy and his damaged but not irreparably broken family told 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.”
A last-minute substitute for sensational Scenie winner Noah Parets, who broke his arm in the line of duty just a week before Saturday’s Opening Night, star-in-the-making Tobin (Parets’ fellow National Tour Billy, flown in from Boca Raton to begin rehearsals on Tuesday) proves himself not only a trouper extraordinaire, but wins hearts from his first charismatic appearance, acts the heck out of the part, and dazzles the audience again and again with his dance prowess.
As for Billy’s partner in crime (they do after all keep the boy’s lessons a deep dark secret from Dad for several months), La Mirada audiences could not be treated to a more spectacular Mrs. Wilkinson than the one-and-only Lewis, sheer brilliance in her distinctly individual take on the feisty, foul-mouthed, and absolutely fabulous dance instructor.
(Speaking of foul-mouths, parents are cautioned that Billy Elliot is R-rated for F-bombs galore, making it much more an adult musical about a child than a children’s musical that just happens to have adults in it.)
Atkinson makes for a powerful, deeply-devoted Dad, Marsha Waterbury could not be more winningly irrepressible as Billy’s Grandma, a splendid Weston gives us not only Tony’s rage and frustration but a brother’s undiminished love, and Dale is a tap-dancing treat as Mr. Braithwaite.
As for Kitchin, whom this reviewer caught two years ago in the Second National tour, the New York-based teen could not be more endearing in his thoroughly original take on Billy’s quirky bestie Michael.
As for the rest of the cast, superlatives are in order for Jamie Torcellini’s spunky George, Sammy Gayer’s diva-in-training Debbie, and most particularly Huber’s deeply felt, gorgeously sung Mum and Forrest’s supremely graceful Adult Billy.
Add to the above Natalie Sachse (Lesley) and John B. Williford (Big Davey) along with their fellow ensemble members Nick Adorno, Andrew Blake Ames, Aaron Czuprenski, Rachel Davis, Michael Dotson, Jeremy Duvall, Zachary Hess, Tyler Ledon, Bruce Merkle, Gary Lee Reed, Brian Steven Shaw, Hannah Jean Simmons, and Justin Michael Wilcox and you’ve got a cast of adult triple-threats who could grace any Broadway stage.
As for the children, director Kite has insured that Brooke Besikof, Emma Bradley, Emily Frazier, R.J. Higton (Tall Boy/Posh Boy), Brendan Knox (Small Boy), Olivia Knox, Emilie Lafontaine, Julia Massey, Jenna McConnell, McKenna Perez, Benni Ruby, Ashley Kiele Thomas, and Brooklyn Vizcarra each offers her or his own individual—and utterly charming—takes on Mrs. Wilkinson’s dancers.
Musical director John Glaudini conducts and plays keyboards in a Broadway-caliber orchestra completed by fellow musicians Adam Bhatia, Sean Franz, Eric Heinly, Nate Light, Jack Majdecki, Danielle Ondarza, Joe Stone, and Ryan Whyman.
Additional assurance that McCoy Rigby’s Billy is as brand-new as regional productions get is provided by a superb (and entirely original) production design, from Stephen Gifford’s ingeniously chameleon-like scenic design to costume designer Ann Closs-Farley’s ballet, miner, police, and everyday wear circa 1984, Steven Young’s stunning lighting design, Josh Bessom’s crystal-clear sound, Terry Hanrahan’s eclectic North Country properties, and Katie McCoy’s spot-on ‘80s hair and wigs.
Jill gold is production stage manager. Julia Flores is casting director.
Additional deserved program credits go to general manager Buck Mason, technical director David Cruise, assistant stage manager Phil Gold, associate choreographers Simmons and Estevan Valdes, dance captain Simmons, ballet girls dance captain Massey, and fight choreographer Williford.
I fell in love with Billy Elliot the moment I first saw him light up the silver screen a decade and a half ago. That love was rekindled when Billy Elliot The Musical made its first National Tour stop in L.A. a dozen years later, and it burns even brighter than ever in Brian Kite and Dana Solimando’s fresh and fabulous new take on Billy, the best possible way to begin a 2015 of theater done to La Mirada perfection.
pasty: a meat-and-vegetable-filled pastry, popular in Cornwall and its environs
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada.
January 17, 2015
Photos: Michael Lamont