San Diego Theater Review: BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL (San Diego Musical Theatre and California Ballet Company at Spreckels Theatre)

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by Milo Shapiro on September 24, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


With his touching screenplay as a basis, Lee Hall adapted the 2000 indie Billy Elliot for the stage, setting his moving lyrics to Elton John’s music. There’s a lot to like in Billy Elliot the Musical: The tale of a boy overcoming judgment and following a dream ran for over 1,300 performances on Broadway, 4,600 in London, and remains a phenomenal world-wide success.

Set in 1984 in a small English town where the majority of jobs are in the coal mines, a ten-year-old boy discovers an unexpected love: dance. Accidentally stuck behind at the town gym after his detested boxing class, Billy (Charlie Garton) ends up watching and eventually joining the girls’ ballet class. Overcoming his fear of being the only boy and the stigma of doing something that could get him labeled as a “poof,” Billy quickly becomes the star of the class as instructor Miss Wilkinson (Joy Yandell) nurtures his innate talent. Being a male dance protégé, however, doesn’t go over well with family and friends, especially during the harsh, financially-strapped period of the coal miner’s strike.

The tale is sweet and in several ways poignant. Not only is Billy’s longing touching, but so are the side plots, especially Billy’s grandmother’s (Alexandra Gonzales) failing memory and remorse about her life choices, and the town members’ powerful reactions to the strike.

In the end, though, this is a musical that does not just include dancing; it is about dancing. Accordingly, we enter hoping to be blown away by that aspect, as has happened in previous touring productions. And even with the California Ballet Company, that is just not the case in this revival with San Diego Musical Theatre. It’s good; it’s just not a wow and this is a show where the dancing should be phenomenal.

That said, SDMT can be proud of young Charlie (who only turned 10 in the last month) for taking on such a big role with passion and maturity. Under Jared Nelson’s choreography, he does a fine job in the dance numbers, as do the girls in school with Billy. Indeed, the work, overall, is fine with some captivating set design work by Stephen Gifford, and lighting by Christina Martin—especially with effects in a scene that brings us underground. The orchestra’s work, under director Don LeMaster, beautifully supported the hardworking ensemble.

The challenge that SDMT continually faces is that they put on huge musicals on large, grand stages like the Spreckles, setting the audience expectation higher than most theaters do. At times, they fully rise to the occasion (the delightful 9-to-5) and at times not quite (the grounded Damn Yankees). In Billy Elliot‘s case, the effort is admirable and certainly enjoyable, especially if you’ve never seen it before—just not exceptional.

SDMT’s move next season to the Horton Grand Theater is a wise one; it’s a very good company and this space would seem to suit their musicals better. It was at the HGT that SDMT produced First Date, one of their finest and boldest musicals to date, so perhaps it was a foretelling of good things to come in their 2018 season, which is comprised of Full Monty, South Pacific, Hairspray and Young Frankenstein.

photos by Ken Jacques

Billy Elliot the Musical
San Diego Musical Theatre
co-production with California Ballet Company
Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway
Thurs at 7:30; Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on October 8, 2017
for tickets, call 858.560.5740 or visit SDMT

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