4 out of 4 stars
Billy Elliot dances into Porchlight Music Theatre’s new home at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts for Porchlight’s first mainstage production of 2017-2018 season. Set in a time of social and political unrest, Billy Elliot’s journey of discovering ballet and his passion to dance nurtured by an unlikely mentor is a universal story. The captivating narrative illustrates how the arts can help anyone deal with the negative in their life. The arts has a power to heal and bring families and communities together.
On March 5, 1984 the British National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) went on strike in response to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s plan to close pits, a plan that would lead to the loss of thousands of mining jobs. The historical background is beautifully set up by the opening sequence’s dynamic blocking beginning with the coalminers, followed by the women and children of the neighborhood. The focus on a motherless boy going against the grain of his community’s expectations and learning about his love of dance is especially poignant. The heavy pressures of the strike add to the already evident traditional stereotyped gender roles of the time period makes Billy’s new found passion difficult to be proud of. Lincoln Seymour plays the titular role of Billy and knocks it out of the park! Seymour’s outstanding performance to a highly demanding role is a testament to young talent. His vocal range was impressive particularly after dancing continually for long periods of time. In a beautiful emotive way, he embodied Billy.
The movie “Billy Elliot” was released in 2000 and during its screening at the Cannes Film Festival, Sir Elton John was reduced to tears at Billy’s story. The strong personal bond Sir Elton John felt lead to the proposal of making the film into a musical, which he wrote the score. The production had a very successful premiere in London in 2005 and Broadway in 2008. Brenda Didier directs Porchlight’s rendition of the beloved film turned Broadway sensation. The direction allows the play to live within a different sphere outside of film and becomes much more vivid and personal in the intimate space of the Ruth Page Center. The audience is sitting inches away from the platform/open stage transformed into the rundown community center of Northeastern England. The warehouse style textured “steel” beams extend over head with no clear division between audience and actors. One thing that limited this production was the lighting on the edge of downstage. The desire to be intimate with the audience and pushing the barrier between the 4th wall left the characters, primarily Billy, completely unlit. This restriction of space and need for a spotlight to hit those steps from of stage brought the audience out of the story- a minor frustration. Upstage a wall of dirty windows are used as multi-purpose doors for entrances and exits, flashbacks and more. The live musical accompaniment can also be seen seated behind these scrim panels, which was reaffirming to the overall enjoyable audio lead by conductor/pianist Linda Madonia, Porchlight Music Theatre Artistic Associate. The sound design by Robert Hornbostel elevates Lee Hall’s Book and Lyrics with Elton John’s music. There were subtle nods to the film like the signature yellows and floral wallpapers of Billy’s room placed on the Elliot’s kitchen chairs, as well as the typical 80s striped track shorts make an appearance later on. The detail of this production was very well executed and made the experience whole with the scenic design by Christopher Rhoton and properties design by Mealah Heidenreich.
Characteristically is where this show flourishes. The stage was filled with incredibly talented individuals of all ages. From the opening moments to the very end, each character tells their own individual journey through the piece with fully developed personalities. The girls from ballet class particularly were impressive in their dedication to the choreographed chaos while maintaining personal identifying traits, i.e. bubblegum chewing overachiever, minimal effort giver, uncoordinated trier. Under the leadership of the fierce chain smoking Mrs. Wilkinson, played by Shanésia Davis, donned in stylish leotards, bold printed ballet skirts, and heels complete with legwarmers. The costume design of Bill Morey was a delight, as jackets lined with Sherpa fleece and tight jeans reigned the stage. Often in musicals, there is one individual providing the comic relief for the serious topic the show is trying to convey. This piece does not find just one comic relief, but a jaunty humor in everyone, although the accompanist Mr. Braithwaite, played by Tommy Novak, running around with hairspray and a fan to add “smoke” to Mrs. Wilkinson’s dance class performance was highly entertaining. A humorous moment that illustrates how the play toes the line between reality and fantasy. With each dance sequence, the narrative deepens into the perspective of Billy. The way the girls from ballet class continue dancing as a police line interrupts through their class. They push back the line protecting Billy in the safe space during dance class.
The work is filled with poignant solos worth praising, as they add so much depth to the overall narrative. The play is as much about Billy, as it is about the individual’s within Billy’s life - an examination of the communal through the example of the individual. Billy’s dad, played by Sean Fortunato, struggles to raise his boys, provide for his family, while also being a key figure in the coal-miner’s strike. Fortunato’s voice pierces the soul in his portrayal of the forlorn widower. Additionally, Billy’s dad’s childhood and past can be inferred through “Grandma’s Song” performed by the immeasurable Iris Lieberman. The layers to their characters peel back and all contribute down into Billy. Paired with family trauma, Billy’s best friend Michael, played by Peyton Owen, provides perspective that you should always express yourself regardless what is weighing you down. Owen showcases a wildly fantastical tap routine of impressive caliber with Seymour (Billy). Even the empty moments of music while prepping for the next step sequence, we hear the two boys encourage one another through “wow, this is tough!” and “c’mon you can do it!” Astounding energy and dance skills!
This was a wonderful performance paired with the incredible toe-tapping score which includes “The Stars Look Down”, “Solidarity”, and “Born to Boogie”. Billy Elliot is a love letter to the parents who support their children’s passions, particularly in the arts. Nurtured creativity, imagination and passion is so incredibly important to instill in future generations. This production is a reminder that we all have a “Billy” inside of us. Blue collar, white collar, or no collar – expressing your passions is the only way to be true to yourself. So I continue to say “Dance, Billy! Dance!”
Billy Elliot is playing through November 26th at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn Street. For tickets and more information, please visit PorchlightMusicTheatre.org or by calling the Porchlight Music Theatre box office at 773-777-9884.
Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with a B.A. in English and a B.A. in Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!