In ‘Billy Elliot’ at Goodspeed, Billy fights to follow his dream of dancing

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Maybe you heard? “Good Morning America’s” Lara Spencer unleashed a great backlash when, in late August, she made fun of the news that Prince George of England was taking ballet classes.

The whole notion that some people might joke about the fact that a boy would want to do ballet hit home particularly for the theater artists working on “Billy Elliot The Musical” at The Goodspeed.

The show’s main character is a boy who is growing up in a blue-collar town in 1980s England and who wants to dance. His father, a miner who’s out of work during a long-running strike, doesn’t cotton to his son’s love of ballet.

On the morning that Spencer unleashed her snarkiness (she smirked, “Prince William said Prince George absolutely loves ballet. … I have news for you, Prince William, we’ll see how long that lasts”), the Goodspeed cast was rehearsing a scene in which Billy and his father are in London for the boy’s audition for the Royal Ballet School. They meet a male dancer who talks about the difficulty his father had with his chosen path.

Gabriel Barre, who is directing “Billy Elliot” at Goodspeed, says, “This dancer ends up being, in our story, very influential on the father. He says outright, ‘You support your son.’ I think it’s one of the most resonant messages in this show … (Spencer’s comment) was just reaffirming that this show, sadly, is going to be relevant and extremely potent for at least some time to come, and this is not a period piece in that sense.”

Marc Kimelman, who is choreographing “Billy Elliot” at Goodspeed, says, “It reminds us that it still takes a lot of bravery to go against the norm, even today, and there will always be people who don’t understand the courage it takes to do that, just because they don’t live in it. To me, personally, I’m able to brush it off a bit because it reminds me how lucky we are to be part of the dance community. You saw the response that the dance community had (to Spencer’s joking). It brings us together even more and stronger and more unified. We’re able to remember how grateful we are to be part of a world that’s really about love and acceptance.”

Kimelman says one of the main messages is that people need to follow their passion, whether others can accept that or not.

Elton John wrote the music

“Billy Elliot” features music by Elton John and a book by Lee Hall. Hall recently wrote the screenplay for the movie “Rocketman,” about Elton John’s life. He also wrote the screenplay for the 2000 movie version of “Billy Elliot” on which the stage musical is based.

“Billy Elliot The Musical” opened on Broadway in 2008 and went on to win 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Barre notes that this is the first time that Goodspeed has staged an Elton John show, and while musicals with pop scores have played at the Opera House, this is different — it’s more of a rock score.

“I’m really excited for the audience, and I’m excited for us, too,” he says.

Barre has worked at Goodspeed multiple times, both as an actor and a director. His directing credits here include “Summer of ‘42” with Idina Menzel, and “Sweeney Todd,” which “Sweeney Todd” composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim came to see. Barre’s Goodspeed production of “Amazing Grace” went to Broadway. He has worked Off-Broadway on shows including the original production of “The Wild Party.”

Kimelman was the associate choreographer for “A Bronx Tale” on Broadway and on the national tour. He is associate choreographer for “Jagged Little Pill,” coming to Broadway this fall.

Kimelman took ballet starting at age 9, but, unlike Billy Elliot, Kimelman’s father was the one who put him in dance class. Marc was in kickboxing but he recalls that he was always doing dance turns to try to distract the opponent before hitting him.

“I’m sure everyone was just, like, shaking their heads,” he says with a laugh. “But my dad was like, ‘Put him in dance.’”

He learned other styles of dance, too, including hip-hop, classic jazz, ballroom and musical comedy.

That’s all to the good, since “Billy Elliot” uses a range of dance styles. Kimelman notes that ballet is one component, but there is everything from contemporary dance in “Grandma’s Song”; to jazz in “Electricity”; to tap, which Billy dances in a cathartic number called “Angry Dance.”

“This is probably a choreographer’s dream for a lot of people,” Kimelman says. “There’s so much opportunity for imagination and so many different movement styles within one show. Normally, I’m stuck in, like, a period piece in the ‘40s, and it all has to look a similar way. But a lot of this movement comes from within. As a kid who wasn’t able to verbalize my feelings, I was really able to learn how to do that through how I moved. Billy is similar in that sense.”

Two Billys

Two actors, Taven Blanke and Liam Vincent Hutt, will alternate the role of Billy at Goodspeed. (On Broadway, three actors rotated through the title part.)

Kimelman says that the choreography is the same for the two young performers, but their attack is different.

“When you’re dealing with two boys playing the same role, it really has to be their own. So I’ve given them some license and freedom to make sure it lives within them,” he says. “We don’t have a ton of time, but we do have time to play with things and talk them through. When Gabe and I first met, we discussed what each song needs to do for the character. So I’ve used different words and mantras to try to internalize the movement so that they understand why they’re doing the steps. And I think that has helped because our kids are such amazing actors.”

Barre says the two young actors are also interpreting the character in their own way, bringing their own personalities to the piece and their own take on the text.

Directing ‘Billy Elliot’ in Mexico

For Barre, this is a second time directing “Billy Elliot The Musical.” His first was a production in Mexico City in 2017. It was the Mexican premiere of the show.

It’s not unusual to have training academies for actors in contention to portray Billy in productions in New York and in other countries, and that was the case in Mexico. Between 30 and 40 children and their families were transported from cities all over Mexico and from Cuba to Mexico City for almost a year of training. From those kids, Barre and his team chose five Billys and three Michaels (Michael is Billy’s best friend) and a dozen ballet girls. The production ran a year, winning many awards, and then toured around the country.

Barre has done a lot of work internationally over the last dozen years, particularly in the Czech Republic and Asia.

In fact, he’s got two projects percolating in China. One is a new show in Xi’an, a city that was once the eastern end of the Silk Road, which was a trade route between China and southern Europe. The show is a Broadway-style musical set in 74 B.C., when the Silk Road was threatened with closing.

The other project is something Barre initiated after speaking at a panel in China, where there was discussion about the need, from the Chinese point of view, to have a Chinese story on Broadway. He saw the 2011 film “Flowers of War,” inspired by a novel by Geling Yan. Barre sought out the writer, and she agreed to give the rights to pursue a musical. She and her husband, Lawrence Walker, are helping to produce the show’s developmental phase. “Flowers of War” is about an American (played in the film by Christian Bale) in 1937 China who, when the Japanese invade Nanking, pretends to be a priest and attempts to shepherd a group of women to safety.

Barre is working on the project with Rupert Holmes, who is writing the music, book and lyrics. Holmes had a hit single with “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” and he won two Tony awards for his musical “Drood.”

Life-and-death stakes

Barre says, “Working on many new musicals, you realize how rare and wonderful it is to have a musical (like ‘Billy Elliot’) that has already got a backdrop with the highest stakes possible. These are life-and-death stakes for everyone. And yet the story’s not about the (mining) strikes. It’s a family drama and an interpersonal story, which is why I’m particularly excited about doing the show here. … This is a beautiful, intimate space and, ultimately, as big and mammoth as the show is, it resonates because it’s a personal and very emotional story.”

Barre notes that in contemporary musicals, characters only sing when words are no longer enough to express what they feel. And when singing is no longer enough, they dance. In “Billy Elliot,” the scale of the stakes, the amount of obstacles these characters are contending with, justifies the extreme expression of their emotions.

“So you have a four-minute number that ends Act One that is all dance. It’s beautiful. It’s cathartic not just for Billy but for the whole audience. That’s rare,” he says. “There’s ‘West Side Story,’ there are a few things that come to mind where it’s fueled by that love story. In this case, it’s a love story, too, but it’s about Billy getting in touch with himself and his father.”

If you go

What: "Billy Elliot The Musical"

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

When: Opens Friday, Sept. 13, and 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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