Now, nearly two decades from first coming out of the pits to see the light of day, Billy Elliot: The Musical is certain to delight all comers and be the musical hit of the Stratford Festival’s 2019 season.
Based on Lee Hall’s original screenplay (2000), the musical talents of Elton John most certainly add much to the stage version (2005) with such memorable numbers as “Solidarity”, “We Were Born to Boogie”, “Angry Dance” and the relentlessly satirical “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher”, keeping the opening night crowd enthralled and begging for more (wish, fulfilled). Still, the musical highlight most certainly had to be the excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, even if the smatterings of Cirque du Soleil “journeys above the stage” somewhat cheapened the magnificent score (and Colton Curtis’ exemplary balletic acumen and form).
That bit of excess being the now expected handicraft of director-choreographer Donna Feore whose show formula always includes invigorating dance numbers, athletics when mere body skills are not enough to “wow” and a most appreciated sense of pace that—once the first notes have sounded up in orchestral heaven—don’t let up till the last hurrah.
Let’s quickly get this quibble in the record and out of the way: the body mics are totally unnecessary as the excellent Festival Theatre acoustics and the calibre of the voices are quite capable of making their musical points without any electronic reinforcement. Nuff said, again.
In the daunting title role, young Nolen Dubuc is ideally angelic in looks, a dancer to be reckoned with, an athlete of promise (see above) and blessed with a singing voice that seldom wavers too far from the intended pitches. His frequent lengthy applauses were most certainly deserved.
Billy’s father, Jackie, was done up proud by Dan Chameroy whether berating his children in the madness of life on the skids (wife gone too early, coalminers’ strike) and making the most of his metamorphosis from petulant dad to supportive, caring parent. Elder son Tony, was also given a fine turn by Scott Beaudin even as the script too often left him high and dry with his character’s development.
Blythe Wilson quite rightfully stole every scene she was in playing the dance instructor who—although admittedly second-rate in the technique department—recognized talent when it fell into her domain. And kudos as well to Marion Adler’s portrayal of Grandma Elliot (as feisty and loving as they come) along with Billy’s ghostly mother where Vanessa Sears was an apparition to die for.
As always, Michael Gianfrancesco’s sets both reinforced the Thatcher era and slid easily from scene to scene. In the same, er, vein, Dana Osborne’s costume designs reflected the challenging times of miners above and below ground in more ways than one.
Seen in 2019, the plight of those whose labour largely pollutes our air somewhat detracts from the larger theme of a disenfranchised boy trying to “art” his way out of poverty.
But for nearly three hours, Billy’s journey from a nobody to potential somebody (with a couple of discreet boy-to-boy kisses adding extra zing to the story) is a production that few will leave without shedding a tear or two and wishing that more young lives would have the courage to do their real thing. JWR