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Theatre Reviews Stratford Festival 2019: Billy Elliot is an electric exploration of community versus individual, ensemble versus star

Nolen Dubuc as Billy Elliot and Blythe Wilson as Mrs. Wilkinson in Billy Elliot the Musical.

Cylla von Tiedemann/Handout

  • Title: Billy Elliot
  • Book and lyrics by: Lee Hall
  • Music by: Elton John
  • Director: Donna Feore
  • Actors: Nolen Dubuc, Dan Chameroy, Blythe Wilson
  • Company: Stratford Festival
  • Venue: Festival Theatre
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to Nov. 3

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Electricity. That’s the name of one of the songs in Elton John and playwright Lee Hall’s musical-theatre adaptation of the film Billy Elliot – and you could feel it crackling through Stratford’s Festival Theatre on Tuesday night.

Sparks fly throughout director and choreographer Donna Feore’s kinetic new production of this 2005 musical about a working-class British boy discovering an artistic passion at the same time his father and older brother are out on the picket line during the 1984-85 miners’ strike.

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Late for boxing lessons one day, 11-year-old Billy Elliot (Nolen Dubuc) stumbles upon a ballet class run by the smoking, swearing Mrs. Wilkinson (Blythe Wilson) and falls in love, against his will, with dance.

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Steve Ross, centre, as George with members of the company.

Cylla von Tiedemann/Handout

When his father Jackie (Dan Chameroy) discovers what he’s been up to, however, he forbids him from continuing. But Mrs. Wilkinson believes Billy has a special talent – and trains him in secret to audition for the Royal Ballet School.

It’s a pretty simple story, really, which leaves plenty of space for creative storytelling – primarily dance numbers that cleverly explore the show’s thematic interest in the tension between community and individual, ensemble and star.

The song Solidarity, for instance, sees a chorus of policemen face off against a chorus of miners – only for this hypermasculine binary to then be invaded by a third chorus of young girls in their ballet gear. Pink tutus and riot gear: an amusing and yet oddly compelling image. (John’s music underneath this movement may be workmanlike – but what other kind of score would you want for a musical about workers?)

Emerson Gamble, left, as Michael is Billy's best friend.

Cylla von Tiedemann/Handout

Immediately following, in a different mode entirely, is Expressing Yourself, a song led by Billy’s best friend, Michael (Emerson Gamble), who enjoys boxing and cross-dressing.

“Everyone is different, it’s the natural state,” he sings, not exactly sounding like an 11-year-old, as he tries on his sister’s clothes. “What we need is individuality.”

This number gradually gains levels of unreality as Michael and Billy start to tap dance – and then are joined by a chorus line of dancing mannequins.

For better or worse, Billy Elliot pirouettes around in tone in this way quite a bit, never particularly concerned about taking a small scene and blowing it up into showbiz.

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It is, on one level, a very unsentimental musical – the adults and children all curse in delightful Northern accents, and there are gags galore about the former knocking some sense into the latter.

But, at the same time, the show’s creators seemingly can’t resist any urge to yank on the heartstrings, hard. There are unnecessary appearances by the ghost of Billy’s deceased mother (Vanessa Sears), and a beautiful dream ballet that Billy dances with his older imagined self (Colton Curtis) that turns cheesy when little Billy is clipped onto a wire and starts to fly. (Oh well, I teared up anyway.)

From left: Scott Beaudin as Tony Elliot, Dan Chameroy as Billy's Dad and Nolen Dubuc.

Cylla von Tiedemann/Handout

Dubuc does a fine job as Billy, executing all the styles of dance the show requires skilfully, and, more importantly, always seeming truthful on stage. This is a hallmark of Feore’s work with young performers at Stratford – and she’s also coaxed a wonderfully dry comic performance out of young Isabella Stuebing as Mrs. Wilkinson’s precocious daughter.

Another recurring quality of Feore’s work is the rigour and athleticism she demands from her ensembles; if Billy Elliot, in form, ultimately leans toward celebrating individual talent, her production’s exceptional group numbers make it more ideologically balanced – a promising young dancer immersed amid dozens of adults who have fulfilled their own youthful artistic promise, but whose names won’t even make it in this review.

The adult actors can sometimes go a little too big (Scott Beaudin, as Billy’s brother, is the prime offender), but one known for his bigly performances at Stratford, notably, does not: Chameroy, who so extremely hammed it up as Dr Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Show last season that he should receive honorary membership in the Ontario Pork Congress, delivers his best dramatic performance in ages as Billy’s grieving father. It’s a much deeper part than I knew – and Chameroy subtly shows us each of Jackie’s small shifts along the road to finally supporting his son’s self-expression.

Billy Elliot and Mr. Braithwaite (Matthew G. Brown).

Cylla von Tiedemann/Handout

A quibble, or perhaps a concern: Classic musicals have been a part of Stratford’s repertoire for most its existence – that meant Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in the eighties; then Golden Age musicals in the nineties; and rock musicals more recently – but producing Broadway fare this recent is new for the classical-theatre company

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Billy Elliot had its Canadian premiere in 2011, in a seven-month commercial run through Mirvish Productions in nearby Toronto – and it just played at regional theatres such as the Arts Club in Vancouver and Theatre Calgary.

Has Stratford decided to confer classic status on this musical already? If so, Feore’s production doesn’t do anything new enough or different enough with the material in a substantial way – for instance, exploring how the show resonates differently in light of Brexit – to make that case.

But after being so skilfully entertained, perhaps only critics then fret about questions like: Whither Stratford?

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