By Barry Reszel
When the announcement came that Porchlight Music Theatre would open its new home at Ruth Page Center for the Arts, a stone’s throw from the Mag Mile, with a production of the electric Billy Elliot, there was but one possible reaction.
That’s fookin’ brilliant!
More than anything else, this selection perfectly shows off the venue’s massive, Broadway-sized stage with an intimacy gained by a house of just 250 or so. (For further proof, the show’s extension to Nov. 26 was announced on opening night.) And the 23-year-old company puts forth its largest-ever cast of more than 40 to tell the (based on a true) story of a young boy in a small Northeast England town who comes to study ballet.
The mega-hit stage version (book and lyrics by Lee Hall and strong score by Elton John) on both shores of the pond is based on a film of the same name. Billy Elliot is the tale of a 10-year old boy whose mother recently died. He is raised by his father, a coal miner, and lives with his older brother, also a miner, and his confused but loving grandmother. Set amid 1984-85 miners’ strike and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s iron reign, the family’s and town’s struggles are evident.
When Billy lingers after a weekly boxing lesson at the town rec center, he is drawn into a ballet class by rough-around-the-edges instructor Mrs. Wilkinson, who opens his life to the magic of the arts and the timeless lesson of pursuing a dream, even against long odds and without support. A full plot summary and production history of this 2006 Best Musical Olivier winner and 2009 Best Musical Tony awardee may be read here.
What the Brenda Didier-directed version at Porchlight does best is show off the fears at the core of this striking mining town juxtaposed against youthful idealism and the rights of young people to be allowed to follow their dreams.
No one shows this better than the two phenomenal actresses playing Billy’s grandmother (Iris Lieberman) and ballet teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson (Shaneisa Davis). Indeed, it’s near impossible to take one’s eyes off the brilliant triple-threat Davis when she’s onstage. Her strong vocals (“Shine,” “Born to Boogie,” “The Letter”), lovely movement and spot-on timing all permit Davis to act as the necessary go-between the hardened mining family and the possibility to achieve artistic fulfillment.
So, too, does Lieberman wow as the kindly, forgetful grandmother. Her rendition of “Grandma’s Song” grounds her character into the souls of every patron who attends.
The strong ensemble cast also brings standout performances from Sean Fortunato as Billy’s father (bring the Kleenex for his kindly, haunting “Deep in the Ground”) and Adam Fane, Chicagoland’s Matt Damon, as tough and angry brother Tony. So, too, the truly gorgeous ballet work of Ivan Bruns-Trukhin (Older Billy) is just stunning. And as the remembrance of Billy’s Mum, Nicole Cready shows off her lovely voice and tender characterization; “The Letter,” sung with Mrs. Wilkinson and Billy, is an absolute highlight.
All this said, there’s a Constantin Stanislavski “No Small Parts” honor to be given for this production. Awarded periodically in ChicagolandMusicalTheatre.com reviews, this honor goes to the onstage actor or actress who turns a relatively small part into something patrons will long remember about this production. For Porchlight’s Billy Elliot, the award goes to Tommy Novak, who oozes comedy with every single thing he does to encapsulate the character of Mr. Braithwaite, the ballet class’ accompanist and gatekeeper. Nowhere is he better than in “Born to Boogie,” showing off some serious vocal chops and dance moves, even if he (hilariously) omits the final splits. His work is a master class for young actors.
The title character (played by Lincoln Seymour at opening and shared with Jacob Kaiser) and his sidekick friend Michael (Peyton Owen) are young, terrific dancers and singers whose chemistry and timing will season through the run. That will make their “Expressing Yourself” duet an absolute showstopper and add even more believability to Billy’s signature number, “Electricity.”
Backstage plaudits go to Christopher Rhoton for his gritty, industrial scenic design; Bill Morey for perfect costuming; and Denise Karczewski, whose extensive use of shadows in her intricate lighting design are noticed and applauded. So, too, Linda Madonia‘s music direction, performed by her seven-member combo is terrific.
It’s homecoming season across the country as leaves begin to change and a hint of winter’s chill hits the air. And there are few better places to warm than the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, where Artistic Director Michael Weber is anxious to welcome musical theatre aficionados to Porchlight’s new home and its electric production of Billy Elliot.
Porchlight Music Theatre presents “Billy Elliot” through December 31 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.