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A CurtainUp DC Review
Billy Elliot, the Elton John musical, with book and lyrics by Lee Hall, has lost none of its charm or grit since it won every prize in London and in New York several years ago. Set in a mining town in the north of England (not unlike the U.S.'s Rust Belt), in the 1980s, it's as much about the divisions in England between the Haves and Have-Nots indulging in a class war as it is about the transformative powers of finding one's self through dance. Billy's Dad and older brother are among the poorly-paid miners who strike (Coal not Dole, is one of their slogans) in opposition to the new pro-business, pro-privatization regulations put in place by the much-reviled Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Billy's home is not a happy one. He lives with his Dad (Chris Genebach in a nice performance that runs from gruff macho to weeping proud father), Grandma (a welcome return to the stage by Washington's own Catherine Flye), and older brother (Sean Watkinson). Although in truth Billy's revered mother (Crystal Mosser in particularly good voice) is dead, she appears in several scenes to comfort and to encourage her much-loved son. Other "ghosts" pass through the story but they are less affective than Mum. Dad, determined to make a man out of his younger son, sends Billy against his will to a rec. center for classes in boxing. But the class after boxing is ballet which is where and how Billy is exposed to the liberating feelings he learns to express through dance. Billy's best friend, his "mate" in Britspeak, Michael, engagingly portrayed by Jacob Thomas Anderson, is also important to Billy. Their duet, "Expressing Yourself" is a show stopper.
Nancy Anderson, apart from being a dynamic dancer, makes the part of Mrs. Wilkinson, the dance teacher, as humorous as it is acerbic. Some of the best lines are hers. She has little time for small talk or for ballet form she finds lacking. She is the ballet teacher everyone dreads but she does get results. All her students but one are young girls with varying degrees of dance aptitude. So Billy stands out not just because he is the only boy in the class but he is so much better than the rest. He is her protégé who, in spite of a few hiccups along the way, is able to use his talent to find a happier future. She is proud of him but in a particularly poignant moment you know that she regrets that she was denied, probably because she lacked the same opportunity, what Billy will have.
The tone and tempo produced by eight musicians on stage but hidden behind a scrim, are pitch perfect. And Jason Sherwood's scenic design manages to include a crummy kitchen, bunk bed, mine shaft, toilet and clothes closet without being intrusive since for most of the dance numbers a clear stage is what is needed. Little touches that bring the time and place to life -- such as a jar of Marmite on the kitchen table -- prove that not detail has been overlooked. Costumes by Kathleen Geldard, lighting by Amanda Zieze and sound design by Ryan Hickey enhance what is already alluded to in the script. Nothing fancy. There is no credit for dialect coach but most (not all) of the actors have managed a variation of a north country accent, which is not easy to do.
Although some of the second act is somewhat moribund, the ending is as uplifting as one can hope for. As always when the credit for direction and choreography goes to the multi-talented Matthew Gardiner, the show delivers forceful performances, scenes, and dance numbers one after another. A show with a happy ending is just what Washington needs ... now.
Book and Lyrics by Lee Hall
Music by Elton John
Directed and Choreographed by Matthew Gardiner
Music Direction by Tom Vendafreddo
Cast: Liam Redford (Billy); Owen Tabaka (alternating as Billy); Nancy Anderson (Mrs. Wilkinson); Chris Genebach (Dad); Catherine Flye (Grandma); Sean Watkinson (Tony); Dan Manning (George); Jacob Thomas Anderson (Michael); Olivia McMahon, Vivian Poe (Debbie); Declan Fennell, Malcolm Fuller (Small Boy); Stephawn P. Stephens (Big Davey); Jamie Eacker (Lesley);Kurt Boehm (Scab/Fight Captain); Crystal Mosser (Mum); Harrison Smith (Mr. Braithwaite); Vincent Kempski (Young Granddad); Grant Richards (Older Billy); Sean Fri (Posh Dad); Franco Cabanas, Harry MacInnis (Posh Boy/Tall Boy); Kedren Spencer (Clipboard Woman); Solomon Parker III (London Dancer); Jamie Eacker (Dance Captain); Kurt Boehm, Jamie Eacker, Sean Fri, Daniel S. Hines, Vincent Kempski, Crystal Mosser, Solomon Parker III, Grant Richards, Harrison Smith, Kedren Spencer, Stephawn P. Stephens (Ensemble); Sofia A. Cruz, Annie Dodson, Anya Katherine Jones, Molly Rose Meredith, Dulcie Pham, Noelle Robinson, Sissy Sheridan, Simone Straub-Clark, Maya Stumpf, Simone Warren (Ballet Girls).
Running time: 2 hours and 35 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Signature Theatre, www.SigTheatre.org; October 30, 2018 through January 6, 2019. Reviewed by Susan Davidson, November 7, 2018 performance.
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