Unemployed coal workers trusting the government to reopen their mines and restore their jobs? No, it’s not the West Virginians who believe Trump’s campaign promises. It’s the plot of BILLY ELLIOT, a plucky gem of a musical based on the film of the same name about striking mine workers in Great Britain. The 1980s were the Thatcher years when the “Iron Lady” broke the unions and put 200,000 men out of work. At the center of one impoverished coal family is a boy who dreams of becoming a dancer and a dad who expects his sons to follow in his dusty footsteps.
The heroic story of BILLY ELLIOT(@ Wheelock Family Theatre through Feb. 26th) is a heart wrencher and the remarkable Wheelock production is packed with show stoppers. Director Susan Kosoff makes every scene resonate and choreographer Laurel Conrad makes each and every member of the cast a dazzling dancer, even the miners! Jon Goldberg’s orchestra transfuses the Elton John/Lee Hall score directly into your blood stream: You cannot keep from moving to the beat, especially in the anthems—and there’s more than one in this infectious pop musical.
Billy (the astonishing Seth Judice) fell into dance purely by mistake. He was supposed to be taking boxing lessons to toughen him up, as he’s the baby of the family. His mother (a loving Gigi Watson) has died and he’s trying to cope. Luckily he has a supportive grandmother (a spunky Cheryl D. Singleton) who, once upon a time, loved to dance, and a best friend (a charming Shane Boucher) who marches to the beat of a different drum.
Kosoff’s spirited ensemble adds an element of electricity you don’t often see in such abundance. Every song works like gangbusters. The big production numbers pay off handsomely and the “small” moments that tug on your heartstrings will have you reaching for your tissues more than once. The righteous, pounding Solidarity number weaves together marching strikers, responding police and little girls in tutus, without collision or confrontation, in a choreographic feat which would give the Radio City Rockettes pause.
The Wheelock production has a cast of stellar performers, many of whom headline shows around town. For instance, Aimee Doherty as the dance teacher who corrals Billy into her class, plays her flinty on the outside while letting us know she’s pleased to no end to be able to mentor and stand up for the sweet, talented boy. That means she’s taking on Neil Gustafson as his stalwart, unyielding father and Jared Troilo as his hot headed, macho brother. Gustafson has a shattering song about his dead wife, Deep Into The Ground, which he nails in a heart breaking solo.
Peter S. Adams is another local star who shines as Big Davey, coalminer, hard-boiled striker and –would you believe, he’s kicking up his heels in the production numbers! Mark Soucy, too, crisply leads the police in riot formation, as they parade in the choreographed pandemonium. John Davin, as well, delivers lots of laughs as the hard-nosed boxing instructor not afraid to flatten his young charges.
Gary Thomas Ng nearly steals the show in the “boogie” scene as the stodgy rehearsal pianist who can “shuffle off to Buffalo” with the best of them! Speaking of scene stealing, a wee actor named Ben Choi-Harris is pretty good at theater larceny. Lily Ramras gets to play the bratty ballet dancer, daughter of the teacher and she’s awfully good at it, too. Byron Darden is quite amusing as the “posh dad” at the big audition and Will Christmann is a standout as the future Billy.
If you know the musical, you’ll be surprised how well this tightened version tells the story and you’ll be astonished at what Matthew T. Lazure has done with a compact set; with Franklin Meissner Jr’s captivating lighting, with Melissa Miller’s ingenious costumes and most of all, with the ensemble of players who give it their all.