Review: "Billy Elliott: The Musical" at Stratford Festival

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  • Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic

Stratford, ON - Rumour buzzed about Stratford that Sir Elton John was to have been in town for the opening of ‘Billy Elliott’.  He wasn’t present, but what an exhilarating feeling instead in seeing a young performer’s talent soar past the roof of the Festival Theatre. Look out, world, there is Nolen Dubuc who is on his way in becoming a Canadian performer to hit the stages of North America and the world.

The young Dubuc appeared humbled at his opening night curtain call but was quick in pulling the entire company back together again for their ensemble bow. True professionalism all the way.

Based on the 2000 film which dramatized the 1984-85 British miners’ strike in which 142,000 workers lost over 26,000,000 days of work. There were many violent confrontations which lead to five people dying, 123 injured and 11, 291 arrested.  The British coal mine industry collapsed. Before the strike there were 174 working mines and by 2009 only 6.

Amidst the turmoil in Britain is the story of eleven-year-old Billy (Dubuc), a working-class lad who wants to dance ballet after wandering into a class. Billy’s widowed father, Jackie (a gut-wrenching performance by Dan Chameroy), his older brother and bully, Tony (Scott Beaudin), and dotty grandmother (a feisty Marion Adler in her ‘Grandma’s Song’) whose grip on reality is fading, all live in the same house.  Tensions on account of the strike are mounting, and the fact Billy only wants to dance does nothing to calm the family’s concern about the future.

There are three people on Billy’s side - his best friend, Michael (a gutsy, true to life Emerson Gamble), and his teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson (a brash, sexy and fiery Blythe Wilson) who believe in the young Billy’s talent and promise. The third individual is Billy’s deceased mother (Vanessa Sears) who drew a tear from my eye at each of her appearances. A mother’s love is unconditional no matter what, and the looks of love and pride she exhibits towards her son are poignantly staged.

Donna Feore holds a great deal of compassion for the young lad in this story. She states in her Director’s Notes that “dance takes everything you’ve got and spits you out without remorse…but dance chooses us.  It’s hard to explain the joyful pain, the euphoria…the rigour and discipline that [dance] demands inform everything I do…Billy has a gift and it will shine like a diamond in the coal dust.”

Under Mrs. Feore’s gift to us of keenly sharp direction, I was completely drawn into this gritty and harsh environment where I kept rooting for the young Billy and only wanted the best for him. Dubuc truly captured the essence of a young boy confused about what he should do and ought to do for the sake of his family. But he never allowed the cynicism surrounding him ever to destroy what he truly wanted to do.

There are some wonderfully staged moments that took my breath away. I was completely engrossed in watching the young Dubuc dance with Colton Curtis (the older Billy). So was the entire audience as there was complete silence. While the events leading to ‘Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher’ were amusing, the song itself brought us back to the grim reality of the time that these individuals have been out on strike for over a year. For me, Ms. Wilson captured the essence of truth as the at times, cantankerous yet heart of gold, Mrs. Wilkinson. As a retired schoolteacher, I remember with great fondness those moments where I would stay after school to give extra help to students, sometimes with a firm hand but always striving to show care. Ms. Wilson beautifully captures those moments with humour, wit, and great kindness.

Vocally, this opening night production blew the roof off the Festival Theatre.  There were at least two moments where the applause went for as long as thirty-forty seconds and the actors held their positions while never breaking character. Some musical moments are worth a mention. The opening ‘The Stars Look Down’ provided a harshly effective opening number which set the mood for this gritty working town. ‘Solidarity’ also sparked a rousing celebration of the working-class individuals who would not back down from the demands they made to save their jobs. ‘Expressing Yourself’ where Billy and his friend try on women’s clothing is, at first, comical but its message of feeling comfortable in your own skin no matter what shined through brilliantly.

A slight quibble that bothered me was the fact the orchestra periodically drowned out many of the lyrics from the choral numbers. I am hoping this can be fixed for future performances.

‘Billy Elliott, The Musical’ continues at the Festival Theatre, 55 Queen Street, Stratford until November 3.  For tickets, visit www.stratfordfestival.ca or call 1-800-567-1600.

Performance length approximately two hours and forty minutes with one 20-minute intermission.

Photo of Nolen Dubuc as Billy Elliott with Blythe Wilson (right) as Mrs. Wilkinson and some members of the ‘Billy Elliott’ company taken by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The Cast: Nolen Dubuc, Dan Chameroy, Blythe Wilson, Scott Beaudin, Emerson Gamble, Marion Adler, Vanessa Sears, Steve Ross, Matthew G. Brown, Mark Harapiak, Isabella Stuebing, Colton Curtis, Denise Oucharek, Marcus Nance, Chad McFadden Callum Thompson, Oliver Gamble, Evan Kearns, Wyatt Moss, Oliver Neudorf, Devon Michael Brown, Starr Domingue, Andre Morin, Emily Birrell, Zoe Brown, Lucy Chung, Cassidy Gristwood, Samantha Guzzo, Sydney Kearns, Carlee MacKenzie, Mila Tupy, Eric Abel, Gabriel Antonacci, Devon Michael Brown, Henry Firmston, Jordan Mah, Trevor Patt, Jason Sermonia, Gabi Epstein, Evangelia Kambites, Camilla Eanga-Selenge

Director and Choreographer: Donna Feore; Music Director: Franklin Brasz; Producer: David Auster; Set Designer: Michael Gianfrancesco; Costume Designer: Dana Osborne; Lighting Designer: Michael Walton; Projection Designer: Jamie Nesbitt; Sound Designer: Peter McBoyle.