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Monday, November 12, 2018

In 'Billy Elliot,' a boy finds his way through dance

From the left: Chris Genebach (Dad), Liam Redford (Billy Elliot), and the ensemble from Billy Elliot at Signature Theatre. [Christopher Mueller]
By David Siegel

Billy Elliot the Musical at Signature Theatre in Shirlington soars with expressive, youthful dance energy and a liberating message: Do what you need to do to be who you want to be. Directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner, Billy Elliot is positively exhilarating, even in politically charged scenes when dance becomes a choreographed rage.

Billy Elliot features 15 original musical numbers, with music by Elton John and book and lyrics by Lee Hall. The show especially soars with the awesome dance talent of Signature newcomer, a stylish and poised Liam Redford (who alternates with Owen Tabaka in the role of the 11-year-old title character) or when a gaggle of well-rehearsed, delightfully rowdy dancers crosses into any number of dance genres, no matter their ages or presenting genders.

You name it, they dance it: utterly beautiful ballet, tap with great flair, Fosse-style jazz, syncopated robotic movements of bored workers and menacing police, teasing flash-dance take-offs with a PG touch, and even some tumbling, too.

The highly successful Signature creative team includes Musical Director Tom Vendafreddo leading an eight-member orchestra and Associate Choreographer Kelly Crandall d’Amboise, who cast many local young performers and dancers in the production.

Billy Elliot is the tale of a boy growing up in the mid-1980s in Britain, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher aims to break the solidarity of the coal miners’ union. She sends in the police who taunt the miners by turning a rousing union song, “Solidarity,” into something much different as the police sing, “We send our kids to private school. On a private bus. We’ve got a lot to thank you for.” And while they sing, they move with menace with batons in their hands.

And then there is young Billy. He is unsure of himself, struggling with the death of his mother. One thing he knows: He has no desire to go underground to become a coal miner like his stressed-out, single dad (Chris Genebach) and his hot-headed older brother (Sean Watkinson).

By a fluke, Billy’s limited world begins to enlarge when he discovers dancing. After a humorously dismal boxing lesson, he spies a group of girls dealing with their own personal struggles through ballet. Their tough-minded teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson (a stand-out, brassy and big-hearted Nancy Anderson), instructs them in the dazzling song “Shine”: “All you have to do is shine. Forget about content. Focus on style…smile.”  

Then with the help of his best friend Michael (the deliciously vibrant Jacob Thomas Anderson), Billy begins to discover his own place in life. Michael joyfully suggests they show disdain for social norms by “Expressing Yourself.” They dance with wild exuberance, trying on the clothes of Michael’s sister. As they dance, Michael belts out “What the hell is wrong with expressing yourself? Being who you want to be?”

Billy’s grandmother (the incomparable Catherine Flye) sings how important dance is through a dream about life with her usually drunk husband. When they danced, they “were free for an hour or three, from the people we had to be,” until the morning, when “we were sober.”

Billy’s journey has many a speed bump. He becomes enraged and taps an explosive “Angry Dance” when his upset dad tries to control him.

A turning point comes when Billy is left to himself and dreams of what it would be like as a dancer. Music from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake swells. With Grant Richards as Adult Billy, there is a most beautiful confident pas de deux. The dance is also quite thrilling because young Billy is often flying high above the audience.

Finally, Billy’s dance talents are recognized by his now-sympathetic dad and the local coal mining community who have come to terms with Billy’s talents (“He Could Be A Star”). Off he goes to an audition in London. Released from his own fears, Billy dances with total abandon to show how dance makes him feel though a self-assured, “Electricity.” From there it is only a matter of time before Billy has other options before him and hard choices to make.

Where and when: Billy Elliot is at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. There are shows every day expect Mondays through Jan. 6, although some shows are already sold out. Order tickets online or call 703-820-9771.

This piece is based on a review in DC Metro Theater Arts.

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