Billy Elliot the Musical raced from London to Broadway in three hectic years that left booming ticket sales, scads of awards – including a Tony for Best Musical - and happy, foot-tapping audiences in its wake. What it most notably didn't leave was something it failed to pick up on the way: a Tony for Best Score. This was not an oversight, it was a valid omission. Directors, choreographers, set designers, costume/makeup/hair teams, lighting and sound designers and the performers both onstage and in the pit have a big job to make the show work when Elton John's mostly bland, forgettable songs threaten to drag down any production.
Community theater is especially vulnerable to the challenge of a flawed show, but the Highland Park Players coped admirably with energetic performances, solid staging and a professional approach to the production that resulted in a satisfying production.
Spirited dancing entwined with conflict is a recurring theme in this show, which tells the story of an English north country family and its community on the brink of economic disaster. The coal miners are again on strike for better treatment and compensation, and the financial effects of the strike can be seen in every aspect of life there, from meager meals and gran's food hoarding to the struggle to find even the pocket change necessary to pay for the son's boxing lessons at the local gym.
The boxing lessons are Dad's idea, but young Billy isn't interested. His gaze keeps turning to the girls' ballet class that shares the gym; not because he's interested in the girls, but because he yearns to learn to move the way the dancers can. Living in a macho, emotionally bottled-up culture and family, Billy's emotional expression of choice isn't through words, it's in movement. So he takes his weekly boxing fee to the gym, but applies it to dance lessons instead.
As it turns out, Billy is a prodigy, learning balance, control and grace much more quickly than the girls who've been attending the lowbrow ballet class for much longer.
A pair of boys alternate the roles of Billy and a chorus lead. On opening night Cade M. Pearlman took the eponymous role with determination and confidence. He demonstrated just the right level of dance skill, hinting at exceptional potential, and showed believable pathos and levity.
Michael P. Greenlief, Jr. made an appropriately intense Tony, full of youthful bullying and more than a hint of the disappointment that weighs the shoulders of an older sibling during hard times.
Brian Herrle captured the complexity of Dad with the authentic bluster and bittersweet optimism of a man whom life has beaten down but who holds fiercely to hope for the sake of his family. From time to time Herrle teased us with hints of his excellent voice, but never allowed vocal technique to upstage powerful emotion.
Jenny Rudnick as Grandma brings levity to the often tense family scenes and croons a bittersweet reminiscence about the challenge of loving both dancing and an abusive husband in "Grandma's Song".
Ewan Parker-Eaton, as Billy's friend Michael, was joyful and fun, brightening the gloomy mood with a rousing, cross-dressing "Expressing Yourself" that encourages Billy to embrace his individuality.
Gerald Nevin, as George, could have walked right off the set of the 2000 film with his easy accent and natural, amusingly gruff delivery.
Alexis Armstrong carried the role of Mrs. Wilkinson with authority and swagger, implying clearly that while her ballet school was not the cream of the crop, her dedication when inspired could move mountains. She moved between comedy and pathos with skill, and her increasing investment in Billy was credible.
The ensemble shifted roles from miners to riot police, and in every layered scene depicting picket line strife alongside youth ballet classes, kept an excellent balance on a crowded stage. What might have seemed like chaos instead suggested the conflicting experiences of village life.
Lest we give the impression that the entire score is a musical snooze, it's important to note the real musical inspirations here. The use of the Swan Theme from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, while cliché, lends real gravity to Billy's fantasy sequence, even as Billy himself defies gravity. The original stage interpretation had been a pas de deux with an adult Billy; imagining himself grown, strong and graceful, while supporting his younger self as he attempts to fly. In this rendition, Billy dances with both his teacher, late mother and grandmother, literally floating on their love and encouragement. The wirework here was as good as the professional show, and it made for a moving moment, particularly with the reinterpretation of Billy's dance partner(s). Seeing this as an extension of the emotional duet between Mrs. Wilkinson and Mum further reinforces the teacher's maternal role in Billy's life. It was an excellent decision.
By far the most musically interesting and emotionally stirring number of the show was the final ensemble piece, "Once We Were Kings". It's a wrenching moment of realization that the striking miners' regaining their jobs means going back into the mines for whatever little remaining time the company will allow the mine to operate before the town's inevitable ruination. The contrast between the ensemble's slow, moodily lit march back down into the mine and Billy's uncertain but hopeful march toward his future at the Royal Ballet School in London benefited from terrific blocking and lighting design and intense performances by the cast.
Scenic designer David Geinosky made strategic choices that maximized the available space on the smallish stage. Minimalist scenery clearly depicted environments while also conveying the sparseness of life in a mining village.
Choreographer Jennifer Cupani contrasted deliberately skilled dancing with enthusiastic, often hilarious ensemble work to create an energetic, dance-first interpretation of the show.
Of particular note is the exceptional work dialect coach Adam Goldstein did in helping this community company adopt a version of the complicated and difficult Geordie accent that rode the line between authentic and comprehensible to a Midwestern American audience.
The Northbrook Theater sits unassumingly inside a recreation center, but the space is well designed, comfortable, and the acoustics are very good. It's rare to find a small, affordable theater that features comfortable seats with fold-up arm rests.
Be sure to stay past the initial curtain calls; an extended – and deeply silly – finale number follows. Prepare for tutus. Lots of tutus.
"Billy Elliot the Musical" runs through November 6, 2016. Language can be salty, so be prepared for some cussing.
Tickets are $20-25
Performances take place at:
3323 Walters Ave.