Not often enough, right?
So make a point to buy a ticket and take in Drury Lane Theatre’s stunning production of Billy Elliot. Electric brilliance is the take-away because director and choreographer extraordinaire Rachel Rockwell treats this regional theatre premiere like a pre-Broadway tryout.
Of course, the mega hit (book and lyrics by Lee Hall and strong score by Elton John) on both shores of the pond already won the Best Musical Olivier in 2006, the Best New Musical Tony in 2009 and took up residence in Chicago for much of 2010. Somehow, Rockwell’s version is fresher, gutsier and better.
Billy Elliot is based on a film of the same name, telling the story of a young boy in a small Northeast England town 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 fuller plot summary and production history of Billy Elliot may be read here.
By intensely focusing on poverty, rising tensions, strikers’ anger and working class bigotry, it’s understandable why Drury Lane’s Billy, brilliantly portrayed by bright star Nicholas Dantes on opening night (Kyle Halford at other performances), is sad for more than the loss of his mother; he wears the gloom of his surroundings.
By doubling down on the despair, truly intermingling it with the beauty of dance, Rockwell delivers a journey that’s critical, not just interesting; a dream that becomes a quest for life over certain death; and redemption that’s necessity more than mere desire—therefore all the more triumphant.
This signature Billy Elliot is not signed by Rockwell and her Billys alone. The incredible Ron E. Rains makes a strong case that his Dad’s character growth may be the most significant of all. Rains transforms from newly-widowed, blue collared miner who believes only a “poof” boy might dance to a fierce defender of his son whose art might deliver him from the evils befalling his town. To boot, Rains’ rendition of “Deep Into the Ground” is flat-out fabulous.
One of Chicagoland’s finest leading ladies, Jeff winner Susie McMonagle, is stunning as chain-smoking dance instructor Mrs. Wilkinson. Reprising one of her roles from the national tour, McMonagle provides the perfect, deft combination of tough love and tenderness.
Liam Quleay as Billy’s brother, Tony; Maureen Gallagher as Grandma; Fred Zimmerman as miners’ leader Big Davey; Brianna Borger as Mum; Rhett Guter as Older Billy; Michael Harp as Billy’s pal, Michael; and young Zachary Uzarraga as young boy dressed up as Maggie Thatcher all deliver shining, signature performances. Indeed, the entire ensemble is first rate and their singing, directed by Roberta Duchak, is absolutely splendid.
From the strong “Solidarity” to the tender “Dear Billy” and the comedic “Expressing Yourself” and “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher,” musical and, of course, dance highlights abound. There’s at least as much tap as ballet, and no patron should slide out quickly to beat traffic. The extra five minutes watching a true “bring down the house” number that is the “Company Celebration” is so worth it—perhaps the finest musical finale on a Chicagoland stage this year.
Effective set design by Kevin Depinet, spot-on costuming by Dustin Cross and hugely effective lighting by Lee Fiskness complete Drury Lane’s consummate professionalism.
Perhaps this Billy Elliot experience is best described by the title character himself. As Billy answers when asked how it feels when he’s dancing, so does his answer match the feeling of a patron of this production: “Don’t know. Sorta feels good…then I like, forget everything. And…sorta disappear…Like I feel a change in my whole body. And I’ve got this fire in my body. I’m just there. Flyin’ like a bird. Like electricity. Yeah, like electricity.”
“Billy Elliot” runs through June 7 at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace. Parking is complimentary. Information and tickets ($45-$60 with additional dinner packages and senior and student discounts for some shows) are available online at www.drurylane.com or by phone (630) 530-0111.