City Springs Theatre Company is producing “Billy Elliot: The Musical,” directed by Brandt Blocker and choreographed by Cindy Mora Reiser, running through May 12 at their beautiful 1000-seat Byers Theatre in Sandy Springs.
The musical is based on the 2000 British film “Billy Elliot,” acclaimed by both critics and audiences as an unqualified triumph. It’s set in Northeast England in 1984-85, a time of real strife and hardship for the local miners and not much help (certainly in their opinion) from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was, shall we say, unloved by the locals.
The musical has music by Elton John and book and lyrics by Lee Hall. Mr. John loves to tell how he got involved in the show: He’d been invited by friends to see the world premiere of “Billy Elliot,” of which he knew nothing, at the Cannes Film Festival. By the end of the screening, he was so overcome by emotion he had to be helped from the theatre. I can’t give you the details, but let’s just say the idea of artistic self-expression as a means of transcending an oppressive environment was something he identified with strongly. And that very night, he mentioned at an after-party to director Stephen Daldry that the movie could possibly be a musical play.
In 2005 “Billy Elliot: The Musical” opened in London’s West End; it won a slew of awards, including the Olivier for Best Musical. In 2008 the show opened on Broadway to ecstatic acclaim and won ten Tony Awards, including Best Musical. I was fortunate enough to see it there and had a second row seat. A theatre nerd (yours truly) does not forget such experiences.
And now Atlanta is getting its first locally produced “Billy”. It’s a story of the 11-year-old Billy (Liam Redford) who lives with his unemployed father (Drew McVety), older brother Tony (Haden Rider), and his sweet, dotty grandmother (Karen Howell) in a small village threatened with extinction by the ongoing coal miners’ strike. Dad (as he’s called here) has enrolled Billy in a boxing class, but by chance he finds himself in a ballet class taught by the formidable, funny Mrs. Wilkerson (Pamela Gold).
She sees something in Billy, a rare kernel of talent, and she dares him to take class with her—and her all-girl ballet class. Needless to say, this idea does not please either his dad or his brother, both of whom view ballet as a totally un-masculine activity, for “poofs” only. His mother is deceased, but Mum (Bethany Irby) appears, through Billy’s imagination, in two of the play’s most moving scenes.
Billy draws strength from her and is astonishingly resilient and stubborn; he realizes Mrs. Wilkinson is right (“Born to Boogie”). Besides, dancing feels like “Electricity” to him. His teacher arranges an audition for the school of London’s Royal Ballet; if accepted, his whole life would change.
All this happens as the miners’ strike continues; there is conflict with the police, the government, even some violence (“The Stars Look Down,” “Solidarity,” “Once We Were Kings”). The songs are uniformly terrific throughout the show. Music director Judy Cole and her musicians are excellent.
Perhaps you realize by now that the whole show revolves around a young boy (in this case 13-years-old, Liam Redford’s age) and the prodigious talent and stamina he must possess. Consider: he must be able to act, sing, dance (and all very well!) and speak in a difficult-to-learn Northern English accent. Do you think it’s easy to find such a person? The film’s director saw 2000 boys before casting Jamie Bell. It’s the same with the stage production. All I can say is “Bravo, Mr. Redford.” You are the real deal. He has played it nationally three times before.
And the entire cast is outstanding: Billy’s delightfully fey friend Michael (Seth Black-Diamond); Atlanta’s Sarah Charles Lewis as Debbie Wilkinson; the wonderful Pamela Gold’s Mrs. Wilkinson; Karen Howell’s Grandma; Drew McVety’s feisty Dad; the golden-voiced Haden Rider as Tony, who has a slight case of toxic masculinity; also George Deavours, Rob Ouellette, and Luke Badura’s Older Billy.
“Billy Elliot” is a large, complex show for any company to mount. That City Springs, still in their first year, is doing it just after a breathtaking “South Pacific” speaks volumes about Artistic Director Brandt Blocker and his entire team. They’re sparing no expense to get the best casts and crew, sometimes using homegrown talent, sometimes using New York casting directors.
“Billy Elliot” is moving, funny, ambitious, and sometimes breathtaking.
For more information, visit cityspringstheatre.com.