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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | It's Easy To See Why Billy Elliot Endures With Stratford Festival Production

By Paula Citron on August 6, 2019

Top drawer production values, a strong cast, and positive vibes make Billy Elliot the Musical a Stratford Festival highlight.

Billy Elliot, Stratford Festival, 2019
Nolen Dubuc (centre) as Billy Elliot with members of the company in Billy Elliot the Musical. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Stratford Festival 2019/Billy Elliot the Musical, book and lyrics by Lee Hall, music by Elton John, directed and choreographed by Donna Feore, Festival Theatre, May 28 to Nov. 3. Tickets available at stratfordfestival.ca.

As proof that Billy Elliot the Musical is a giant hit, the Stratford Festival has extended the show’s run into November. Contributing to that success is director/choreographer Donna Feore, the doyenne of Stratford musicals, who has crafted a production of relentless energy and unabashed sentimentality that transfers quite nicely onto the Festival Theatre’s thrust stage.

Billy Elliot (2000) began life as a small, independent British film, which went on to great acclaim worldwide. The subsequent popularity of Billy Elliot the Musical (2005) owes a large part to the fact that composer and rock icon Elton John collaborated with Lee Hall (book and lyrics) who wrote the original screenplay, thus ensuring authenticity. The story is about Billy (Nolen Dubuc), an eleven-year-old boy who wants to become a ballet dancer, a certifiable no-no in a homophobic working-class town. Ballet captures Billy’s attention when he stumbles into the class of dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (Blythe Wilson). Billy also has a best friend Michael (Emerson Gamble) who knows, even at this young age, that he is gay and likes trying on his sister’s dresses. Billy’s Grandma Elliot (Marion Adler) has early symptom Alzheimer’s, which adds to the family’s troubles. The second storyline is the real-life British coal miners’ strike of 1984-5, instigated by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to break the power of the unions. Billy’s father Jackie (Dan Chameroy) and brother Tony (Scott Beaudin) are on the picket line. At first, Jackie is dead set against ballet for Billy, but comes to support his son’s dream.

Billy Elliot, Stratford Festival, 2019
Nolen Dubuc (left) as Billy Elliot and Matthew G. Brown as Mr. Braithwaite in Billy Elliot the Musical. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

When I saw the musical back in the day, I thought the first act was ho-hum, but with a second act that was tighter and more together. This Stratford production confirms my opinion of the musical itself, although I am clearly in a minority position given the show’s adoring following. Nonetheless, the first act seems a scattergun approach as Hall/John attempt to include songs aimed at being big production numbers away from the main storyline such as “Grandma’s Song” or the Billy/Michael tap duet “Expressing Yourself”. The second act is more direct with the focus on Billy, his dance talent, and his family.

Feore has masked the show’s inherent flaws with an exceedingly busy stage picture, almost too busy in fact. For example, Mrs. Wilkinson has a factotum, Mr. Braithwaite (Matthew G. Brown), who does everything for her, from playing the piano to setting up the ballet barre. Feore uses Mr. Braithwaite to move set pieces in general, adding in motivation.  When Mr. B. has to remove the toilet stall where Billy hides, he rushes to the toilet as if he needs to use it. Cutesy, but gratuitous.

As a choreographer, Feore has always been known for very muscular movement, and she has assembled a strong cast of mostly male dancer/singers. In fact, the female ensemble for this show is very small. Whether as striking miners or riot police, the male ensemble is all testosterone, particularly in the danced battle between the two sides that is as gymnastic as it is forceful. These men are men, and not a fey chorus line. On the other hand, Feore’s ballet class girls, all shapes and sizes I may add, are clumsy yet sweet. The matinee I attended was filled with young people, as many boys in the audience as girls, I’m happy to report, and the numbers that got the biggest cheers and applause were those performed by Billy himself, or with his friend Michael. Billy has several reflective solos that mirror his inner frustration and turmoil, and Feore has given him showy choreography that involves total body thrusts requiring Dubuc to throw himself around the stage. At other times, however, Feore has stuck close to the original Peter Darling choreography, like how Grandma’s swains enter with chairs, or the dancing dresses in “Expressing Yourself”, which is a disappointment. I would have expected more originality.

There is not a weak link in the cast. Young Dubuc as Billy is a natural, who can dance, sing, and act with a Northern English accent. He can also tug at the heartstrings or lash out at will. Dubuc has made Billy into a complex young boy. Wilson absolutely captures Mrs. Wilkinson’s hard-nose, bored, sardonic character, but we also feel her excitement when she spots Billy’s talent. Chameroy is a musical veteran who always turns in good performances, and his Jackie is beautifully realized, a pathetic, broken man. Beaudin’s believable Tony goes through many moods, from bullyboy to his brother and union strong man, to sorrowing son when Jackie becomes a scab to earn money for Billy, to a Billy sympathizer. Adler’s Grandma is a suitable combination of fragility and strength. Gamble as Michael gives a sparkling performance as both a dancer and an actor, particularly in his wild tap duet with Billy.

Billy Elliot, Stratford Festival, 2019
Dan Chameroy (left) as Billy’s Dad and Nolen Dubuc as Billy Elliot with members of the company in Billy Elliot the Musical. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

John’s score is attractive and varied. It contains, not one, but three stirring anthems, a couple of jazz numbers, a tender ballad, a folk song, and a joke patter song (“Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher”), all of them with memorable tunes. The rock-driven instrumentals that accompany Billy’s solos are filled with restless tension. The end of the Billy Elliot movie featured a grownup Billy (in the person of British ballet superstar Adam Cooper) performing The Swan character from iconoclast choreographer Matthew Bourne’s radical take on Swan Lake. Billy Elliot the Musical portrays the adult Billy in a very clever way. To a mix of Swan Lake themes with original music, the young Billy performs a duet with Older Billy (Colton Curtis) as he dreams of what he will grow up to be, and Feore has given the two beautiful, lyrical movement filled with in-your-face ballet clichés. The musical ends with Billy going off to London and the Royal Ballet School.

As usual, the production values of Billy Elliot the Musical are top drawer. Michael Gianfrancesco’s limited set is a backdrop of grimy industrial windows, with set-pieces as needed, like the tiny Elliot kitchen. Dana Osborne’s costumes are period-perfect, while Michael Walton’s lighting is effective, if on the dark side. The show opens with documentary newsreel footage of the coalmines being taken over by the state, and the subsequent strike, courtesy Jamie Nesbitt. It is a dramatic beginning for a gritty tale.

All in all, Billy Elliot the Musical is making important statements about personal choices without being preachy, and clearly the young people in the audience are responding in a positive way. As for the four-letter words used by Billy and Michael, they seem natural and inoffensive, and good for Stratford for keeping them in the script.

LUDWIG VAN TORONTO

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Paula Citron
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Paula Citron

Paula Citron is a Toronto-based freelance arts journalist and broadcaster who hosts her own website, paulacitron.ca. For over 25 years, she was senior dance writer for The Globe and Mail, associate editor of Opera Canada magazine, arts reviewer for Classical 96.3 FM, and dance previews contributor to Toronto Life magazine. She has been a guest lecturer for various cultural groups and universities, particularly on the role of the critic/reviewer, and has been a panellist on COC podcasts. Before assuming a full-time journalism career, Ms. Citron was a member of the drama department of the Claude Watson School for the Arts.
Paula Citron
Follow me
Paula Citron
Follow me

Paula Citron

Paula Citron is a Toronto-based freelance arts journalist and broadcaster who hosts her own website, paulacitron.ca. For over 25 years, she was senior dance writer for The Globe and Mail, associate editor of Opera Canada magazine, arts reviewer for Classical 96.3 FM, and dance previews contributor to Toronto Life magazine. She has been a guest lecturer for various cultural groups and universities, particularly on the role of the critic/reviewer, and has been a panellist on COC podcasts. Before assuming a full-time journalism career, Ms. Citron was a member of the drama department of the Claude Watson School for the Arts.
Paula Citron
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