Gotta dance: 'Billy Elliot' at The Goodspeed has some moves

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The Goodspeed is wrapping up the season at its Opera House in East Haddam with “Billy Elliot,” and since “Billy” is a newer show (it hit Broadway in 2008) and might not have the widespread audience knowledge that more part-of-the-canon musicals do, we will get the uninitiated caught up on some of its most salient features.

Name recognition: The score is by a composer named Elton John — maybe you’ve heard of him? — with lyrics by Lee Hall. Hall adapted the stage piece from his own screenplay for the hit 2000 film “Billy Elliot.” Hall also wrote the screenplay for “Rocketman,” this year’s superb movie about Elton John’s life.

A layered story: The titular character is a boy around 11-12 years old, growing up in a blue-collar town in 1980s England. He discovers his love for ballet and strives to follow his dream to dance, even as he gets pushback from his father and brother. The father and brother have other pressing issues; they are miners struggling through a strike that has dragged on much longer than anyone had anticipated, leaving them increasingly panicked.

Reasons to dance: Since the show deals with a boy finding himself and his calling in dance, there are lots of productions numbers to be had.

Goodspeed Musicals is staging “Billy Elliot” for the first time, and the most striking aspect is (little surprise, considering the plot) the dancing. The choreography by Marc Kimelman covers a range of styles, all wonderfully.

“Shine,” for instance, is a dance-class carnival of silliness, a callback to old-school musicals that boast over-the-top costumes and grinning faces and indefatigable feet. “We Were Born to Boogie” bubbles with that same happy-go-lucky spirit.

“Angry Dance,” on the other hand, transforms Billy’s resentment into furious movement. Tap steps punctuate his frustration, as he kicks and bellows, and imagery like his being caught between fences pushed toward him by his father (played by Sean Hayden) and brother (Gabriel Sidney Brown), reflect the life he feels trapped in.

The most emotionally affecting sequence is “Dream Ballet,” in which Billy (portrayed the night I was there by Liam Vincent Hutt) dances with an older version of himself (Nick Silverio). It’s a gorgeous pas de deux that speaks of balletic strength and elegance.

Mining emotions

The mining strike that Billy’s father and brother experience is based on actual history: England nationalized the coal mining industry there after World War II. In the mid-1980s, though, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her conservative government worked to change things. They wanted to curtail the power of unions, especially the National Union of Mineworkers. The government tried to close 20 mines, and the miners went on strike. They were out of work for a year and eventually lost the fight and returned to work; Thatcher had won. Afterwards, even more mines were shuttered, and the surviving ones were privatized.

So this adds weight to “Billy Elliot” that many musicals don’t possess. With the miner strike and the following-his-dream tale as the two dominant story threads, “Billy Elliot” calls upon both drama and comedy, dark and light, and it’s sometimes an uneasy mix. The scenes of the miners fighting and fretting during the strike feel painfully real. The world of dance and friendship that Billy discovers is one of joy, humor and sometimes goofiness. Viewers can feel as though they’re being whiplashed between subject matters and tones.

Sights and sounds

If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t guess that the music is by Elton John. It’s fairly standard pop-Broadway fare. The songs here work well in the context of the show but aren’t among Elton’s most memorable compositions. (You might leave the theater humming “Solidarity,” but that’s more about how many times it’s reprised than its intrinsic power.)

Some of the visuals, on the other hand, are quite arresting — such as the sight of the miners, with their helmet lights cutting through the darkness, as they rise up on an elevator from the mine depths at the start of the show and then descend again at the conclusion.

On the farcical end of things: For “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher,” a caustic number that opens the second act, a humungous, flat Margaret Thatcher “puppet” looms over the stage, looking ghoulish, like one of those “Spitting Image” creations from the 1980s. Strings from Thatcher’s fingers are tied to the hands of dancing policeman, portraying them as marionettes before they finally break free.

The staging as a whole is quite effective, and director Gabriel Barre makes smart use of the auditorium, and not just the stage, for the show. At one point, the policemen line one aisle and glare across the audience to a far aisle, where the strikers are likewise staring the cops down. It not only makes quite a visual impact, but it also gives a tense sense of being in this kind of faceoff without the relative safety of its being staged on the other side of a proscenium arch.

And even as theatergoers first walk in, actors mill among them and talk about Thatcher and mining issues as if we are all in the union hall where the show begins.

About the actors

The role of Billy is a multifaceted, challenging one. The young actor portraying him has to dance like a dream, sing well and convey the character’s complex inner life. On Broadway, three boys shifted the role among them, and at Goodspeed, Billy is played at different performances by two different young actors, Hutt and Taven Blanke. Hutt does a nice job conveying all of aspects of Billy, from the hurt over the death of his mother to the pleasure he takes in ballet. Hutt is a fine dancer, as the character transforms from taking tentative, clumsy first steps to confidently and expertly executing turns and leaps.

As Michael, Billy’s gay best pal, Jon Martens is a hot ticket, which is just what this character should be. For “Expressing Yourself,” which is about, well, expressing yourself, Michael gets dolled up in a hot-pink dress, fascinator and oversized, bedazzled glasses that look as if they were nabbed from Elton John’s personal collectiom. Martens performs the number, and the role in general, with pizzazz.

Portraying Billy’s dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, Michelle Aravena is a scene-stealer, too. Forever clutching a cigarette and wearing leg warmers, she wields sharp sarcasm but also eventually softens where Billy is considered, encouraging him like a surrogate mother.

As for his family, the actors playing Billy’s father and brother, Hayden and Brown, respectively, convey both the characters’ upset and confusion at Billy’s newfound passion and their unwavering love for him. Billy’s grandmother is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and actress Barbara Marineau has to be touching (as she loses her memory) and amusing (the character perpetually hides food around the house). She walks that fine line that adroitly.

If you go

What: "Billy Elliot The Musical"

Where: The Goodspeed, 6 Main St., East Haddam

When: Runs through Nov. 24; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays (with select performances at 2 p.m.), 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays (with select performances at 6:30 p.m.)

Tickets: Start at $29

Contact: (860) 873-8668, www.goodspeed.org

 

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