'Billy Elliot' soars in Drury Lane premiere
At the heart of "Billy Elliot, The Musical" is the notion that art has the power to transform lives: to change a young, boy from a duck into a swan, to rescue him from a life destined for the coal pit, and literally send him soaring.
Yet the musical -- in a brilliantly directed, expertly performed regional premiere at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace -- suggests art (specifically dance) doesn't have to significantly alter the trajectory of one's life to profoundly impact it. For the residents of the dreary mining town in Northern England where this tale of self-expression and acceptance unfolds, dance and music get them through the day, whether they realize it or not.
And for most, it's enough. Like the young woman wed to a lazy, abusive alcoholic, who is sustained through three unhappy decades of marriage by the few hours she and her husband spend dancing each week. Or the increasingly desperate strikers who've had their heads busted in clashes with police, yet find a reason to smile during a Christmas pageant. Or the awkward young girls who take ballet lessons and will never dance "Swan Lake," but, thanks to a determined instructor, will always shine.
Yet that is only one component of this engaging, enormously satisfying, albeit bittersweet musical, which was adapted by writer/lyricist Lee Hall and composer Elton John from the hit 2000 film.
The story centers on a working-class boy who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer (a role shared by Nicholas Dantes of Vernon Hills and Kyle Halford of Naperville). But set against the British mineworkers 1984-1985 strike to save an industry the government ultimately dismantled, "Billy Elliot" is no sugarcoated fairy tale.
The show is gritty. The violent confrontations between the striking miners and local police depicted during the anthemic "Solidarity" (a recurring theme) and the explosive, rock-infused "Angry Dance" are harrowing. It is grim in its depiction of the miners' descent into obsolesce, the way their confidant swagger gives way to desperation and ultimately humiliation as the strike ends unsuccessfully.
At times, the musical is heart rending, as in the achingly lovely ballad Billy and his late mum (gently played by Brianna Borger) sing during a fantasy sequence. Yet it is also joyful. Case in point: "Born to Boogie," a celebration of the human compulsion, exuberantly performed opening night by 14-year-old Dantes along with Brett Tuomi's ballet accompanist Mr. Braithwaite (a real hoot), and the great Susie McMonagle.
McMonagle, who took over the role in "Billy Elliot's" sit-down Chicago run in 2010, plays with clear-eyed compassion and ferocious determination Mrs. Wilkinson, the small town ballet teacher who first recognizes Billy's talent. Also deserving mention is the showstopping tap duet "Expressing Yourself," featuring Dantes' Billy and his cross-dressing friend Michael, played by the boldly uninhibited charmer Michael Harp, which includes an ingenious coda (one of several intriguing, original touches) by director/choreographer Rachel Rockwell, who eschews spectacle to honestly examine "Billy's" heart and soul.
But most striking of all are the show's profoundly moving moments, specifically the breathtaking pas de deux between the sweetly expressive, ever-sincere Dantes, who is an extraordinary young dancer, and his older self, magnificently danced by Rhett Guter.
Not all of the magic moments involve dancing and singing. Ron E. Rains impresses as Billy's conflicted father, and the myriad emotions he expresses as father Jack watches Billy's audition are marvelous to behold. Also earning kudos is Drury Lane newcomer Liam Quealy, in an impassioned turn as Billy's desperate older brother, clinging to a life quickly slipping away, and Maureen Gallagher as Billy's grandmother, who gives the boy the push he needs to begin his new life.
One could not ask for a finer, more emotionally engaging production of this Broadway blockbuster than the one helmed by Rockwell, whose superb ensemble had to pause several times to accommodate the near-capacity audience's enthusiastic applause.
Rockwell can certainly stage spectacle, but even more impressive is her skill at crafting emotionally resonant scenes and her flair for working with children. There's nothing phony or precocious in their performances. Every one rings true.
"Billy Elliot"★ ★ ★ ★
Location: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, (630) 530-0111 or drurylaneoakbrook.com
Showtimes: 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, 1:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 5 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday, through June 7
Running time: About two hours, 45 minutes, with intermission
Tickets: $45-$60; senior and student discounts available; dinner-show packages available
Parking: Free adjacent lot and pay valet service
Rating: For teens and older; contains mature language, subject matter, some violence