It helps to know a little British history to thoroughly appreciate “Billy Elliot”, the Elton John musical currently in a fine revival at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam. The miners’ strike of 1984–85 was a major industrial action to shut down the British coal industry and it serves as the backdrop of this moving and powerful musical about a young boy’s desire to follow his dreams.
Based on director Stephen Daldry’s well-received 2000 film, the musical version of “Billy Elliot” premiered in London’s West End in 2005 with book and lyrics by Lee Hall (who wrote the original film’s screenplay) and music by pop sensation Elton John. The show was a huge success in England and also won accolades when it opened on Broadway in 2009. Set in Northern England, “Billy Elliot” is about a motherless young boy living with his stern, coal-miner father (Sean Hayden). Strictly by accident Billy discovers a passion for dance when he stumbles into a ballet class run by Mrs. Wilkinson (Michelle Aravena). Before long, he finds himself demonstrating the kind of raw talent seldom seen by the instructor. With a tart tongue and puffing a never-ending stream of cigarettes, Wilkinson’s love of teaching is revived when she sees the extent of Billy’s potential.
The role of Billy is a demanding one and, as was done on Broadway, a pair of young actors alternate playing the part. At Goodspeed, Liam Vincent Hutt played Billy at the performance I caught (Taven Blanke is the alternate) and he proved to be a masterful bundle of energy in the numerous dance sequences. He was less convincing and lacked spark, however, in the book scenes of the musical, but thankfully he’s given invaluable support from both Aravena, merely wonderful as his teacher and Hayden, who is terrific balancing the gruffness and pathos of the character as he struggles to accept Billy’s decision. It’s a very strong performance. Doing a lot with the scene-stealing “Elton John” role in the musical, Jon Martens is hilarious as Billy’s flamboyant friend, Michael. Barbara Marineau is also warmly maternal playing Billy’s supportive grandmother.
Elton John’s score features a nimble balance of ballads and up tempo songs with a highlight being “Shine” which has Aravena pulling out all the stops trying to inspire her young dancers. Both the thrilling “Solidarity” and haunting “Once We Were Kings” are stirring anthems that rally the miners and Hutt and Blanke are a dream team extolling the virtues of drag for young boys in the delightful ditty, “Expressing Yourself”. Musical Director Michael O’Flaherty is in absolute lockstep with choreographer Marc Kimelman and director Gabriel Barre throughout the proceedings.
The thick working class accents and references to Margaret Thatcher may hinder American audience’s total appreciation and understanding of the motivations here, but this is still a memorable family musical that wears its heart comfortably on its sleeve. It is well worth the trip to East Haddam.
“Billy Elliot” continues at Goodspeed Musicals through November 24. For ticket reservations or further information call: 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor and resident critic of WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.