When Billy Elliot first opened on Broadway in 2008, the U.S. was facing a financial crisis that caused many people to lose their homes and led to the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Ten years later, the economy has improved, but our society is more divided than ever along socio-economic lines. As a revival of the musical opened this week at Arlington’s Signature Theatre, the midterms were over, but there’s no end in sight to the partisan bickering that has cast a pall over our country. Yet the message delivered by this production, which opened in London in 2005, never grows old and serves as a timeless beacon of hope. Even seemingly impossible hurdles can be cleared. In the midst of the 1984-85 coal miners’ strike in England, young Billy aspires to become a ballet star. And against unbelievable odds, he manages to carve out a future path to achieve that dream.
Chris Genebach (Dad) and Liam Redford (Billy Elliot) Photo by Christopher Mueller
Nothing works in this musical without a young person who can carry on his shoulders the heavy responsibility of playing Billy. For Signature’s production, the role will alternate between Liam Redford and Owen Tabaka. Redford, who starred in the role for 11 performances in another regional production of the show in Williamstown, New Jersey, performed during the press preview I attended and exceeded all expectations. On stage virtually nonstop, Redford never misses a beat. He can act (his interactions with his dad, played by Chris Genebach, and his deceased mother, played by Crystal Mosser, are touching), his singing, filled with verve and emotion, go one-on-one with some of the more experienced members of the cast, and his dancing seems far more polished than possible for someone so young. His duet with Grant Richards, dancing as the Older Billy, begins as a beautiful pas de deux, then morphs into a display of gravity-defying jumps and twirls. Simply breathtaking.
The other young people in the cast not only support Billy, but manage to emerge as separate personalities that seem real, not clichéd. The two standouts are Vivian Poe, as Debbie, the daughter of the ballet teacher who believes in Billy, and Jacob Thomas Anderson, as Michael, Billy’s best friend.
Billy’s dad insists he take boxing lessons. But one day Billy stumbles into a dance class taught by Mrs. Wilkinson (a marvelous Nancy Anderson) and is intrigued. At first struggling with the dance moves, Billy soon finds his rhythm and, perhaps even more important, enjoys himself. For her part, Mrs. Wilkinson recognizes Billy’s talent and volunteers to teach him after school. Billy’s dad and brother are opposed to his dancing, yet why would they be anything but? Ballet has no relevance in the lives of coal miners who are fighting to preserve their jobs and their way of life. Genebach is terrific as his character slowly comes to terms with his son’s choices.
Ensemble (Photo by Margot Shulman)
Opposition to the miners’ strike of 1984-85 was led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government who labeled the strikers and the organizers “the enemy within.” The Iron Lady emerges as a target of the strikers’ anger in the rousing “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher.” With no indication that the strikers will prevail, the holidays are less than merry. Against this backdrop, Billy is still hoping to be able to audition for admittance to the National Ballet School, something that seems less likely because of the family’s financial situation. But even macho miners recognize Billy’s passion and dig deep to help. Do we have any doubt about the outcome?
Liam Redford and the Ensemble (Photo by Margot Shulman)
Director/Choreographer Matthew Gardiner deftly handles the intricacies for presenting the musical in Signature’s MAX Theatre, using every inch of the stage for maximum effect. The dance numbers are exuberant. With minimal scenery (scenic design, Jason Sherwood), we still register a time and place and the action never wanes.
Elton John’s music, while serving the production well, never has registered as an iconic score with recognizable songs. (Can you sing even one song from the musical?) Still, within the context of the production, the songs and lyrics (Lee Hall) work well enough to move the story along.
Billy Elliot runs through January 6 and is the perfect holiday treat for the entire family.
Top photo: Liam Redford as Billy Elliot; photo by Margot Shulman
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