By Barry Reszel
In the midst of a season where everyone is doing their level best to feel the feels, Music Theater Works gives Chicagoland audiences a boy in emotional turmoil, figuring out his talents along with his identity with the backdrop of a downtrodden mining town on strike.
In the prelude to Billy Elliot’s signature song, “Electricity,” the title character shares his answer when asked how it feels when he’s dancing: “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.”
This musical (book and lyrics by Lee Hall and strong score by Sir Elton John) has been a longtime hit now on both shores of the pond. It won the Best Musical Olivier in 2006, the Best New Musical Tony in 2009, took up residence in Chicago for much of 2010 and has enjoyed stellar regional productions at both Drury Lane and Porchlight.
Based on a film of the same name, it’s 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 the 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 family support. (A fuller plot summary and production history of Billy Elliot may be read here.)
Juxtaposed fear of what a yearlong strike means to families against deserved youthful idealism; working class bigotry; police brutality; still-fresh pangs of a mother’s death; and the tough love of a favorite teacher are all themes folding into John’s lovely score and any worthy production’s stellar dance. Indeed, Music Director/Conductor Michael McBride and Choreographer Clayton Cross deliver on these counts. And Director Kyle A. Dougan’s earnest cast works to share these important messages with their enthusiastic audiences.
It’s a tad ironic that with a signature song called “Electricity,” opening night on Dec. 23 was marred by the most glaring sound issues this reviewer has encountered. These troubles rendered Act One completely unintelligible and continued sporadically though Act Two, almost making this single viewing of this production unreviewable. Without being able to hear the spoken and sung soundtrack of Billy’s relationships with his dead mother, father, brother, grandmother, best friend, teacher and others, it’s impossible to really critique this show.
That said, reviewers for and readers of this site understand that technical issues evident at one performance are likely to be fully absent from the next. Certainly, Music Theater Works’ magnificent fall production of Ragtime in the same theatre did not experience these same sound problems and should give prospective patrons faith that the needed audio fixes will be made.
So let’s look at unquestionable highlights this production provides, starting with Jake Siswick’s tender voice and stellar dance in the lead role. He’s perfectly complemented by Kai Edgar’s (best friend Michael) hilarious comedic prowess, impish dance brat Everleigh Murphy’s sass and the entire ballet class with nearly every dance line led by one of this reviewer’s favorites, Jordyn Helvie, in her first professional production.
Among the adults, Casina Raether is terrific as the tender/tough, chain-smoking dance instructor Mrs. Wilkinson; Caron Buinis is lovely as the forgetful Grandma; Matt Miles as Dad and Brandon Michaud as brother Tony are convincing as the bigoted-but-evolving family; and the always-wonderful Lydia Burke glows as the ethereal ghost of Billy’s dead mother. It’s too bad the audio issues prohibit a listing of what are certain to be stellar vocal highlights from this accomplished cast.
Backstage plaudits go to Lauren Nigri for her moveable, gritty, industrial set design and Darcy Elora Hofer for her terrific costumes. Special shout-out to wardrober Mimi Athena and whoever assisted backstage for the multiple costume changes on this forty-plus-strong cast.
At its heart, Billy Elliot is a character study applicable to everybody who is trying to figure life out—meaning, everybody. It’s a work in progress. And often, art imitates life.
Billy Elliot runs through Jan. 2nd at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. For tickets or more information, please click here.
Photos by Brett Beiner.