With practically every news bulletin filled with images of protests around the world, a musical based around the 1984 Miners strike in Britain could hardly be more relevant. However, far from depressing, this musical is a joyous, uplifting and often, a surprisingly moving, experience.
Packed with stirring songs, dazzling dancing, and memorable performances, Billy Elliott – The Musical tells the story of a young boy who discovers that he has a talent and passion for ballet. With the encouragement of the local dance teacher, Mrs Wilkinson, he pursues his passion in spite of the objections of this father, and the derision of his community, a coal mining village in Northern England.
As the first international production outside the UK, and prior to its Broadway premiere, Billy Elliott – The Musical toured Australia, premiering in Sydney in December 2007 and finishing its tour in Melbourne in 2009. Despite the popularity of that production, which received eight Helpmann Awards, the complexity of the set design precluded touring beyond Sydney and Melbourne.
However a clever rethink of the set design, means that this 10th Anniversary 2019 production will now be seen in Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane in addition to Sydney and Melbourne. And it was worth waiting for, because with the fluid new set design comes refreshed new staging and choreography, adding renewed energy and gloss to this tight new production which is a fresh a new pin.
As before, the role of Billy Elliot is shared between four boys. 12 year-old, red-headed Canberran, Jamie Rogers, thrilled the opening night audience with his incredible triple-threat talents. Equally comfortable tapping up a storm in the stunning Angry Dance or exhibiting impeccable classical ballet technique while spinning high above the audience in a spectacular air-borne pas de deux duet with his older self, for which he was superbly partnered by Aaron Smith.
His singing and acting was equally as impressive and he confidently nailed scene after scene, tearing at the heartstrings with his poignant goodbye to his best friend, Michael (James Sonnemann on opening night), or standing up to his enraged Dad, or having conversations with this dead Mum (Danielle Everett), in a role which would daunt performers twice his age.
(On other nights Billy will be played by Omar Abiad, age 12, from Brisbane, River Mardesic, age 11, from Melbourne, or Wade Neilsen, age 12 – from Newcastle, and no doubt each will be just as accomplished).
As Billy’s tough but supportive ballet teacher, Mrs Wilkinson, Kelley Abbey is quite wonderful. She looks every inch the dance teacher, acts with authority and nuance, is in fine singing voice, and dances up a storm in Shine. The Born to Boogie number, in which she’s joined by Billy and the dance school accompanist, Mr Braithwaite (Dean Vince in scene-stealing comedic performance) is one of many highlights.
Justin Smith, who played the role of Billy’s older brother in the original Australian production, gives an appealing performance in this production as Billy’s father, at first strongly against his son’s ballet dancing ambitions, but once convinced by Mrs Wilkinson of his son’s talent, willing to support his son to the hilt.
Drew Livingston, as Billy’s older brother Tony, Vivien Davies as his doting Granma, Robert Grubb as his boxing teacher, George, and Damien Birmingham as one of the miners, Big Davey, all shine in arresting cameos. And who could you not love the little girls in Mrs Wilkinson’s ballet class, all cheeky individuals, led by Gabrielle Daggar, who played Debbie on opening night.
Stephen Daldry’s staging throughout is masterly, as is Peter Darling’s choreography, particularly the full cast scenes, in which the striking miner’s intermingle seamlessly with the ballet class. This is a production which will keep you engrossed and enchanted from the first note until the last. But be forewarned. You’ll need your tissues… for the happy tears.
Billy Elliott – The Musical
Sydney Lyric Theatre, 55 Pirrama Road, Pyrmont
Performance: Friday 18 October 2019
Season continues to 15 December 2019
Following the Sydney season, Billy Elliott – The Musical will play the Festival Theatre – Adelaide Festival Centre from 29 December 2019; Regent Theatre, Melbourne from 20 February 2020; Crown Theatre, Perth from June 2020 and Lyric Theatre – QPAC, Brisbane from July 2020. For more information, visit: www.billyelliotthemusical.com.au for details.
Image: Billy Elliot – The Musical (Australian Cast) – photo by James D. Morgan
Review: Bill Stephens OAM