There are lots of reasons Billy Elliot the Musical walked off with 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Based on the popular 2000 film, with a solid book by Lee Hall and a stirring score by Elton John, the story is chock-full of laughs and tears, family love and arguments, eccentric but lovable characters, class differences and political discord, plus the heart-tugging struggle of a young boy to overcome obstacles, triumph over adversity, and achieve a dream which almost everyone else has deemed impossible. On paper, it sounds like a candidate for Thelma Ritter’s famous putdown in All About Eve, “Sheesh, what a story. Everything but the bloodhounds nippin’ at her rear end.” But on the stage, it’s magic.
There are also lots of reasons for you to brave the traffic on the 5 Freeway to see Billy Elliot the Musical at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. This reliably professional theatre has once again mounted a polished, ebullient production which will – to thrown in a few clichés – make you laugh, make you cry, and make you want to stand and cheer at the end. Not to mention there’s a frisson of real-life drama centering on the kid playing the title role.
But more on that later.
The story is simple: a working-class 12-year-old boy in a depressed British mining town hates boxing lessons – which his father insists on – and accidentally finds himself at the ballet class which follows boxing at the local gym. Voila! He discovers he has a passion for dance. Seen as effete and upper-class, though – not to mention sexually suspect – this passion provokes suspicion, disapproval, and ridicule from his uneducated family and uncouth friends. Can he succeed as a dancer, or will the troglodytes win the day?
I don’t think I’m being a spoiler by telling you Billy achieves his goal of getting into the Royal Ballet School. However, the authors make it clear Billy’s achievement is only the first step: he has a long way to go, and he’ll go it alone, as exemplified by his leaving the stage at the end of the show and walking – alone – out of the theatre with his suitcase. Furthermore, it’s also clear Billy’s success doesn’t mean triumph for everyone: his family and the rest of the hardscrabble miners remain in the village, and their future looks grim. Not the happiest of endings. Well, at least not till the too-too much finale.
Despite the grim realities, the show is joyous, and director Brian Kite does all he can to bring the audience to cheering, stomping jubilation.
As usual at La Mirada, the technical elements are first-rate: sets by Stephen Gifford, lighting by Steven Young, costumes by Ann Closs-Farley are all superb, as are the props by Terry Hanrahan, hair and wigs by Katie McCoy, and sound by Josh Bessom. John Glaudini’s musical direction gives us a lush, large-orchestra sound with only nine players in the pit.
And also as usual, the performances are solid and stylish. Marsha Waterbury as Grandma boasts impeccable comic timing, but also tears at the heart in the lovely “Grandma’s Song” – her pitch-perfect reflection on love, loss, and a desire never to be sober.
Vicki Lewis is spectacular as Mrs. Wilkinson, the foul-mouthed, tough-as-nails teacher at the third-rate dance school, who recognizes Billy’s special talent and selflessly nurtures it. The show’s second number, “Shine,” introduces her character in a boffo way, and the dynamic Ms Lewis never lets up.
The entire cast is terrific, with especially moving contributions from David Atkinson as Billy’s Dad and Kim Huber as his Dead Mum. Jake Kitchin, as Billy’s best friend Michael, is a fearless young actor who deftly handles both outrageous comedy (not to mention outrageous costumes) and the simple humanity of the character.
The ensemble numbers in Billy Elliot can be a choreographer’s dream – or nightmare. Many of the dances require a host of pre- to barely pubescent kids, sometimes performing as a discrete group, but often interacting with the adult ensemble. Dana Solimando has choreographed with precision and energy, and brings out the best in both adults and kids.
Now to the real-life drama about Billy: the boy originally cast broke his arm in rehearsal less than a week before opening. Since there was no understudy, the theatre went on a frantic search to find someone who could fill in. 14-year-old Mitchell Tobin had played Billy on tour and in London, and flew in from his home in Florida, starting rehearsal three days before the scheduled opening night.
True, he had played the role before, but not for more than 6 months. And Billy Elliot is a frighteningly complicated show, with enormous technical demands on the actor playing the central role, including an extended sequence in which the character flies through the air. Every production is different, and getting up to speed in an unfamiliar theatre, with a cast which has been rehearsing for weeks, can be daunting if not overwhelming. Mitchell Tobin pulled it all off with grace and dignity, and earned the audience’s ovation.
Billy Elliot is one of those shows which, when done well, is particularly satisfying, for while it deals with hard truths and life lessons – the tension between fathers and sons, the ache of a parent who wants a better life for his kids, the frustration of wanting to be true to yourself but not knowing if you can make it – it’s entertaining without shortchanging the drama. The show has almost too much heart, but it leavens the tears with genuine comedy, and leaves the audience thrilled and uplifted at the end. What more do you want?
Billy Elliot the Musical
Book and Lyrics by Lee Hall
Music by Elton John
Musical Director – John Glaudini
Choreographer – Dana Solimando
Directed by Brian Kite
Through February 8
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts
14900 La Mirada Boulevard
La Mirada, CA
Tickets available online at www.lamiradatheatre.com or by calling 562-944-9801 or 714-994-6310.