Tim Leininger, Contributing Critic - Connecticut
Goodspeed Opera House’s production of Elton John and Lee Hall’s “Billy Elliot” running through Nov. 24 is at times one of the best shows I’ve seen at the Opera House, and at other times feels like Goodspeed overreached.
Directed by Gabriel Barre and choreographed by Marc Kimelman “Billy Elliot” is an adaptation of the 2000 film.
Set in the mid-1980s in County Durham, in Northern England, Billy Elliot (Taven Blanke and Liam Vincent Hutt on alternating performances) lives with his widower father (Sean Hayden), his brother, Tony (Gabriel Sidney Brown), and grandmother (Barbara Marineau).
Dad and Tony are both members of the coal miners’ union and have been on strike protesting Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s efforts to close down much of the coal mining industry.
The most visually effective moment of the show is the opening when the coal miners rise up from dark, ominous depths beneath the stage on an elevator, covered in soot and grime during the overture. It’s a beautiful moment requiring efforts from all the design teams and Barre.
Amidst the political drama, Billy is taking boxing lessons. One day he stays afterward and observes a ballet class. Encouraged by the instructor Mrs. Wilkinson (Michelle Aravena), he joins in and she discovers he has a natural talent for dance and much to the chagrin of his father and brother he decides to start taking classes regularly.
“Billy Elliot” makes a serious effort not to skimp on the “B” plot of the strikers. That coupled with lengthy musical/dance numbers, the show runs close to three hours, which can feel a bit tedious at times, especially at the end as the story has a rather lengthy falling action.
Though there were some marvelous dancing moments, I feel that, overall, the dancing didn’t meet the standard that should be expected from a professional production of “Billy Elliot,” especially at Goodspeed where earlier this year they had the wonderfully choreographed “The Music Man.”
On the night I was in attendance, Hutt was on as Billy. Hutt definitely has the attitude for Billy, his acting was solid throughout, and his vocals were overall solid. As for his dancing, Hutt’s biggest strength is ballet and he is great through a lot of it, but on occasion he has trouble sticking the end of his longer phrases.
The most impressive dance moment is the “Dream Ballet” near the beginning of Act 2. Kimelman has created a quality fantasy ballet of Billy dancing with an imagined older self (Nick Silverio). If you’re familiar with the show, traditionally the number has a flying sequence, but due to the constraints of Goodspeed’s stage the number remains grounded. This doesn’t stop the number from being good — it’s beautiful at times — but it also makes the number feel less fulfilling.
The tap numbers are the weakest part of the show. Whether it is due to Hutt’s abilities or Kimelman’s interpretation, the tap numbers felt sloppy and underwhelming, even with the understanding that during the “Angry Dance” at the end of Act 1 is supposed be reflecting a child having a rather aggressive tantrum. The aggression is there in Hutt’s acting, but either the steps didn’t land or the choreography did not balance the action with clarity.
The rest of the cast is overall satisfying. Hayden does a good job of portraying the beleaguered father who hasn’t worked in almost a year and doesn’t want to face the additional embarrassment of having a son taking ballet. Aravena is wonderful as the jaded but still compassionate Mrs. Wilkinson and Jon Martens is ridiculously adorable Michael, Billy’s precocious young friend who is already exploring his love for women’s clothing and Elton John glasses.
But as good as the acting is, including Hutt, I can’t help but feel dissatisfied when a musical whose focus is on a prodigy dance student, the dancing doesn’t steal the show.
Theater: Goodspeed Opera House
Location: 6 Main St., East Haddam
Production: Book and Lyrics by Lee Hall; Music by Elton John; Directed by Gabriel Barre; Choreographed by Marc Kimelman; Music Directed by Michael O’Flaherty; Scenic Design by Walt Spangler; Costume Design by Jen Caprio; Lighting Design by Jason Kantrowitz; Sound Design by Jay Hilton; Hair & Wig Design by Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Fight Direction by Unkledave’s Fight-House; Dialect Coach: Jennifer Scapetis-Tycer
Show times: Evening: Wednesday and Thursday 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 8 p.m., Sunday 6:30 p.m. Matinee: Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday 2 p.m., Saturday 3 p.m. Sunday evenings through 10/13; Thursday matinees begin 10/17
Tickets: $29 to $75. Available online at www.goodspeed.org, by phone at 860-873-8668, or at the box office