Sunday, July 28, 2019

Billy Elliot The Musical soars at Stratford

Earlier this month my far better half and I made our first of several day trips of the season to Stratford, a place that has become something of a second home to us over the years.  The reason for the latest outing was to catch the big musical on the Stratford Festival thrust stage this year, Billy Elliot The Musical.

Billy Elliot is a fictionalized story based in a hardscrabble town in northern England where the main occupation for generations has been mining.  But with the rise of Margaret Thatcher in the early 80s and her famous clash with the miners' unions, the fuse is lit on a powder-keg of emotions experienced by the rank and file as they come to grips with the likely end of their livelihood in the mines.  What else is there to do than work in the mines, after all?

The book and lyrics are by Lee Hall and music is by Elton John and although you won't leave the theatre humming a single tune from the show, the music is an integral part of the overall package and perfectly tells the story of a young lad fighting to find a better life for himself in such difficult circumstances.

Billy Elliot is the 11-year-old son of miner Jackie, coming to grips with losing his wife, likely losing his livelihood, and still managing to put food on the table and raise his young son.  He is also coping with a mother living with them who is slowly succumbing to dementia.

As gritty and difficult a story line as this is, Stratford wisely decided to take a chance on a far more contemporary musical than we are used to seeing at the Festival, likely for no other reason than the fact their most bankable choreographer/director Donna Feore was set to direct the show.  Her credits are lengthy at Stratford and elsewhere so if anyone has the golden touch at Stratford these days, much like the late Brian MacDonald did back in the 80s, Feore does.

Her casting choices are inspired and they have to be, because although Billy Elliot is indeed a musical it relies less on spectacular dance sequences and more on well-rounded characters to carry the story line from beginning to end.  Oh there are dance numbers to be sure, but nothing like we're used to seeing in past triumphs such as The Music Man.

The title role goes to young BC native Nolan Dubuc, who apparently saw the show as a young child and never forgot it.  He is now 11 and soars literally and figuratively in this production.  His dream ballet sequence with Colton Curtis as the older Billy is breathtaking, setting the course for Billy's dream to finally come true.

Young Nolan carries the show in more ways than one, as he appears in almost every scene, dancing, speaking, singing.  The show truly revolves around him and he shows repeatedly he is up to the task.  This will be an actor to watch for years to come.

Surrounding young Billy are exceptional performances including Stratford veteran Dan Chameroy as Billy's beleaguered dad Jackie, struggling to come to grips with so much and now he has to come to grips with his young son wanting to go to ballet school.  How is that possible, he wonders.

It comes through the inspiration of Blythe Wilson as Mrs. Wilkinson, the local ballet teacher who takes Billy under her wing when she realizes he could have real talent.  It turns out Billy gives her an outlet to live out her own dreams of ballet greatness in spite of a rocky marriage and a dead-end teaching position in a town with little or no future.

She encourages dad Jackie to send Billy to the Royal Ballet School and although he initially scoffs at the idea, he eventually sees the opportunity as something he can do for his son to give him a better life.

Other notable performances include Emerson Gamble as Billy's best friend Michael who is gay and loves cross dressing.  His dance number with Billy is funny and touching at the same time.  If only everyone could get along and be as accepting as these two are.  At the other end of the spectrum is Billy's older brother George, played by Steve Ross.  He is a hard nosed union man and cannot see his younger brother being, as he put it, a "poof" dancing on stage in the ballet.

The ensemble work is tremendous in this production, especially in numbers such as Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher, where cast members dance while wearing oversize heads of several hated world leaders including Thatcher and shall I say, one enigmatic Canadian Prime Minister from that particular era as well.

All in all, Billy Elliot The Musical doesn't disappoint from beginning to end.  Although the songs may escape you once you leave the theatre, the feelings of hope and admiration for a young dynamo chasing his dream will not.

Billy Elliot The Musical runs at the Festival Theatre until November 3rd and rates a solid 4 out of 4 stars.

For tickets, call the Stratford box office at 1-800-567-1600 or go to

Have a great weekend!

July 28th, 2019.

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