ESSEX — “Billy Elliot The Musical,” set in an English mining community on strike in defiance of Maggie Thatcher’s anti-labor policies, needs a large cast and a large stage. And the main the plot turns on an 11-year old boy whose unlikely passion for ballet changes his town, his family, and his life forever.
Despite some terrific scenes and performances, Goodspeed Musicals’ production, running through Nov. 24, ultimately lacks this show’s essential electricity.
The musical is based on the film of the same name, and Lee Hall, who penned the original screenplay, wrote the musical’s book and lyrics. The score is by Sir Elton John, and it’s easy to see why he was drawn to the piece, with its combination of history, grit, and grace and its message of following one’s dreams.
Set during the 1984-85 miner’s strike in County Durham, North East England, the plot contrasts Billy’s conventionally masculine community — these men love boxing and are passionately and violently determined to keep the mine, and the town, alive — with the women who guide Billy towards his authentic identity and talent: his loving mum, passed away but still watching over him as a reminder of tender, unconditional love; and the ballet teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, who, purely by chance, recognizes and nurtures his gifts.
The emotional arc is, by now, even more predictable than when it opened in 2005. Still, because of Sean Hayden’s superb performance as Billy’s Dad, the father-and-son plot remains powerful. Hayden makes us fully believe in Dad’s transformation from a miner mourning the death of his wife and furious that Billy would reject his world, to a man proud of his boy’s talents and determined that his son succeed.
Other standouts among the adult principals are Michelle Aravena, who is glamorous, down-to-earth, and dogged as Mrs. Wilkinson; the tender Rachel Rhodes-Devey as ghostly Mum; and Gabriel Sidney Brown, Billy’s older brother, who conveys the miners’ fierce determination to fight for their lives.
However, Goodspeed’s small stage presents a challenge, and those who chose this musical might have thought twice. While some productions have been tailored successfully to this space, director Gabriel Barre faces an impossible task here. Even with a brilliant use of catwalks, rolling metal stairways, and the theater’s aisles, Barre and his Scenic Designer, Walt Spangler, can’t keep the show’s crowd scenes from feeling, well, crowded.
Then there is the challenge of casting Billy. Billy must be believably young, all but starving, and longing for both a dead mother and a father who has gone nearly dead inside from grief. Yet he is also ignited by the edgy spirit of a boy desperate to figure out what it means to be a man — on his own terms. Also, Billy must look, and ultimately dance, as if ballet were sculpted onto his body and excel at every other dancing style as well.
Wisely, Barre has cast two young actors to play Billy on alternative nights, and on Press Night Liam Vincent Hutt took the stage. Hutt plays Billy’s sweetness and sorrow beautifully, and his connection with the audience is strong. Too, he nails the acrobatic elements and tap-dancing in Marc Kimelman’s new choreography. But his ballet is less assured, and Barre, by casting such an apple-cheeked, healthy young lad, loses the chance to emphasize Billy’s hunger of body and soul.
The friendship between Billy and young Michael, the stunning Jon Martens, rings delightfully true; and Martens brings sparkle, originality, and out-sized wit to his role. It’s difficult to imagine another Michael with more cheeky charm, and his signature number with Hutt, “Expressing Yourself,” complete with Elton John glasses, is a high point.
Jen Caprio’s costumes help to create the contrast between the children’s hopeful lives and the darkness of the miners’ world, as does Jason Kantrowitz’ lighting design. Jay Hilton’s sound design nearly overpowers some of the numbers, but for the most part, the songs hold their own under Michael O’Flaherty’s music direction. Dialect Coach Jennifer Scapetis-Tycer helps each actor enunciate well despite the very difficult accent, which some master more thoroughly than others.
Goodspeed’s “Billy Elliot The Musical” may not be perfect, but some of the performances are as excellent as any you will see. The balance between beauty, hardship, and hatred needs sharpening, but audiences are clearly glad to celebrate the production’s joy.