Chicago Theater Review: BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL (Porchlight Music Theatre at Ruth Page Center)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 16, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


Billy Elliot was born to dance; likewise his cinematic tale just had to become a musical. But it’s a case of apples and oranges: If you loved the Universal Pictures film from 2000, you’ll like the musical. If you never saw the movie, or wish it had been both more political and more spectacular (i.e, larger and louder than life), you’ll love this multi-Tony winner. Now in a galvanic revival by Porchlight Music Theatre at Chicago’s Ruth Page Center for the Arts, despite its hit-and-run plot development and jerky character development, Billy Elliot the Musical is a real contender.

On the screen Billy Elliot felt natural, spontaneous, irresistible in its storytelling urgency and above all, innocent in its depiction of a boy who’s “gotta dance” and doesn’t care if that makes him look like his gay best friend Michel Caffrey. Billy Elliot the Musical politicizes the coming-out story into a kind of anti-Margaret Thatcher adolescent rebellion. But this musical powerhouse is still a ton of fun, as we watch a (very unlikely) star get born.

Not surprisingly, given Sir Elton John’s status as a gay icon and dream maker, it’s packaged wonderfully as both a rock-star fantasy and workers’ protest: Billy’s acceptance into the Royal Ballet is a symbolic victory (like the apprentice worker/strippers in The Full Monty) in the larger defeat of a coal town doomed by a failed strike: The Terpsichorean curtain call, a frenetic attempt to make up for the musical’s defiance of any comprehensible choreography, feels strangely bittersweet—so much exaltation when Billy’s triumph changes so little.

What works is how well the musical balances fear against hope. We feel the frustrations and desperation of the colliers (“Solidarity”) of County Durham, literally sinking into a dying industry. Like an artistic antidote, however, we cherish the natural buoyancy and optimism of a fresh face about to find his future. For every despairing chorus number, like “Deep into the Ground” or “Once We Were Kings” there’s a hopefully redemptive one, like “Born to Boogie” and “He Could Be a Star.”

All but a domestic civil war, the context of the action is the British mineworkers’ 1984-85 strike, a last-gasp proletarian protest against Thatcher’s union-busting bully-girl tactics. Like the filmmakers, Sir Elton and bookwriter/lyricist Lee Hall (adapting from his screenplay) were determined to get something good out of it, the advent of an unstoppable new talent.

Twelve years old and missing his mother (Nicole Cready) enough to conjure her up to feel less alone, Lincoln Seymour’s plucky Billy discovers his destiny when, abandoning boxing for ballet, he joins a girls’ dance class—and learns he can leap. More than the seething souls around him, Billy is lucky to have this immediate and reliable outlet for his pent-up passions. Seymour’s frenetic first-act finale, the well-named “Angry Dance,” opens the sluicegate for the unprocessed rage that turns energy into art. Watching Seymour forcibly fuse classical twirls, artful arabesques and anarchic, seemingly improvised, kicks and splits is to be young again—happily, from a safe distance.

Brenda Didier’s sterling staging does the same, honoring the musical’s many good intentions, with abundant help from co-choreographer Craig V. Miller and music director Linda Madonia. Bursting at the seams, Billy Elliot feels as much a force of nature as a thing of art.

The power of both movie and musical is to remind us what it’s like to be Billy—to have more heart and hope than you know what to do with or your town can put to good use, then discover that the dream of dancing is a shared obsession: The Royal Ballet is where you must go. And, yes, you need tough-love help from Shanésia Davis’s hard-boiled, tough-loving dance teacher, eventual understanding from Sean Fortunato as Billy’s divided dad, and a buddy as supportive as flamboyant Michael (adorable Peyton Owen), joining Billy and sporting dancing dresses in “Expressing Yourself.” So, through December, Jacob Kaiser will alternate with Lincoln Seymour to dance up successive storms. The result is, as the hit song delivers it, “Electricity.”

photos by Michael Courier and Austin Packard

Billy Elliot the Musical
Porchlight Music Theatre
Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St
Thurs at 7:30 (dark Nov. 16); Thurs at 1:30 (Nov. 16 only);
Fri at 8; Sat at 4 & 8;
Sun at 6 (Oct 22, 29 & Nov. 5); Sun at 2 (Nov. 12 & 19)
ends on November 19, 2017 EXTENDED to December 31, 2017
for tickets, call 773.777.9884 or visit Porchlight

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