As tough times fall upon a group of hard-working miners, a young boy steps up to take his place — not in the mines but at the ballet bar.
In British musical phenomenon Billy Elliot, now playing at the Pantages Theatre, reality meets dreams.
Picture this: The year is 1984. The scene is the old mining town of Durham, England. The problem? Margaret Thatcher and the government threaten to close down the mines, uprooting the livelihood of all miners. And amid all the testosterone-fueled rage, a ballet dancer is born: Billy Elliot.
Young, motherless Billy (J.P. Viernes) finds himself knocked out of his boxing lessons and into Mrs. Wilkinson’s (Leah Hocking) ballet class. With a few pushes and pulls of strategically movable set pieces by the cast members as they dance, the show’s stage transforms before the audience’s eyes from the gritty, barren street — full of angry miners — to Mrs. Wilkinson’s prim community dance studio with fluttering ballerinas.
Rich Herbert and Cullen R. Titmas, who brilliantly play Billy’s gruff father and Billy’s stubborn, impulsive brother, respectively, bring raw emotion to the stage, perfectly portraying the pressures of the miners’ strike on family life. As the youngest member of the family, Billy doesn’t notice the repercussions of the strike but feels another inner struggle as he grows into a beautiful ballet dancer.
After the death of Billy’s mother (Kat Hennessey), Billy turns to his grandmother (Patti Perkins) for hope and support. Perkins does a superb job at setting the audience up and surprising them with the unexpected.
One anticipates “We’d Go Dancing” to be a song of loving tales of a 33-year marriage, but Perkins instead whips into an almost four-minute-long rant about how much she hated her husband, the “son-of-a-bitch,” except for their drunken nights out dancing. Perkins brings spitfire to the elderly character, singing, “But if I went through my time again, oh I’d do it without the help of men, or at least your granddad / If I’d only known then what I know now, I’d have given them all the finger.”
Perkins isn’t the only example of the play’s high quality: The power of Billy Elliot emerges through the strength and dynamic nature of its characters.
Elton John’s musical score and Lee Hall’s famous book and lyrics are brought to life by the performances of the show’s triple-threat cast, along with the chemistry they have with one another and charisma they share with the audience.
Then there is also Billy’s chain-smoking, rough-around-the-edges, washed-up ballet teacher Mrs. Wilkinson.
Hocking’s blatantly over-the-top humor is hysterical and refreshing, and though she can be painfully critical at times, it’s clear that she’s the only one who believes in Billy from the start.
Director Stephen Daldry, along with choreographer Peter Darling, stage the show wonderfully and execute a variety of dance styles, with everything from little ballet girls en pointe to young Billy gracefully dancing along with an older self in a dream sequence to burly miners partaking in combat-like dance with police.
And in what is perhaps the most enticing number, “Solidarity,” the frilly moves of the ballerinas tangle with the abrupt and clunky moves of the grimy, frustrated miners; the combination creates an intriguingly stark contrast. On another standout note, Billy’s eleventh-hour soliloquy “Electricity” brings a vulnerable yet liberating feel.
The role of Billy is alternately played by five different boys, ages 13 to 15, and each actor has unique choreography for the “Electricity” number, designed to show off their strengths and passion. J.P. Viernes is the oldest of the Billys, and not only acts but also sings and dances with a passion and expertise beyond his 15 years.
As one can imagine, the musical runs the gamut of emotions: despair, optimism, rage, desire and love — all cushioned by a dose of wit and sarcasm. The humor brings some levity to the play at the same time that the severity of the miners’ suffering and persistence adds depth.
“Billy Elliot is a story that sits well with any performer,” said Vanessa Russo, a swing in the cast. “It’s a child finding his passions and dream and just going for it. That’s what any performer, dancer or artist goes through.”
The show’s inspiring story, however, does not resonate solely with other performers. “It’s about finding your passions and dreams at a young age and knowing what you love, no matter what that may be,” Russo said.
Billy Elliot plays at the Pantages Theatre through May 13, 2012. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.