Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Set in a harsh, working-class northern England town in the mid-1980s, Billy Elliot tells the story of 12-year-old Billy, who realizes that he wants to be a dancer, and the struggles he endures to fulfill his dream. His father and brother, and many people in town, are miners who are fighting a bitter strike. Margaret Thatcher is in control, or "out of control" as the people in the town feel. Billy's mother passed away several years previously, his father is emotionally distant, his grandmother is a little off her rocker, and Billy hides the fact that he is going to dance classes as he doesn't think anyone in his town will understand.
The musical follows the plot of the 2000 film very closely and the score, with music by Elton John and lyrics by bookwriter Lee Hall, based on his screenplay for the 2000 film, ensures that the grand scope and violent reality of the strike and the struggles of the people in this town are not forgotten amid the more personable story of Billy's desire to dance. John's music is varied and upbeat but also features some truly heartfelt and emotionally rich numbers. Hall's lyrics are full of life and humor.
With a talented cast, many of whom play multiple parts, and a set that quickly moves to portray the various locations in town, director Michael Barnard and choreographer Sam Hay do a superb job in seamlessly intertwining the plight of the miners with the story of Billy's journey. The cast is excellent, led by a rich and fulfilling performance by Matthew Dean as Billy. Dean delivers an inspiring portrayal and excellently gets across the many layers of this complicated but charming boy who is lost due to the loss of his mother and the fact that his father truly has no understanding of how to raise him or give him the acceptance that he so deeply needs. Dean's dancing skills are superb for someone so young, presenting a wide range of styles, and his "angry dance" that ends act one is full of raw emotion.
Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy's dance teacher, is played by Jenny Hintze, and she does an excellent job of showing us how this world-weary woman sees a spark in Billy that she hopes, under her guidance, can help get him out of this town and out of a life as a miner. Chris Eriksen is just as good as Billy's father. Through Eriksen's expert facial expressions we see the suffering he endures from the strike as well as the confusion he has when he discovers Billy has taken up dance classes. But he also expertly shows the changes his character goes through once he realizes how important dancing is to Billy. The joy he evokes during the number "Electricity" when his character sees what his son is capable of is one of the most emotionally stirring, heartbreaking, and inspiring moments I've seen on stage all year.
In smaller parts, Maria Amorocho is a hoot as Billy's grandmother who we discover, just like Billy, was truly only happy in her past when she was also dancing. Alex Kunz is full of fire as Billy's headstrong brother Tony, and Katie Hart is full of life as Billy's warm mom whom Billy often finds himself talking to when he is alone. As Billy's friend Michael, Ross Nemeth delivers a no-nonsense, showstopping performance of a boy who fancies dressing up in women's clothes to express himself. Besides providing the varied and inspiring choreography, Hay also plays the part of the grown up Billy in a dream sequence where he and Dean deliver an emotionally rich balletic duet.
As usual at Phoenix Theatre, the creative elements are top notch. Robert Kovach's scenic design expertly portrays the rough and dirty mining town while Cari Sue Smith's costumes are period and character appropriate. Michael J. Eddy's lighting design is full of deep, rich colors. Alan Ruch's music direction achieves some stunning vocals, especially of the score's many stirring choral moments for the large cast.
Billy Elliot is a musical that shows how the arts can allow people to express themselves. In Billy's case, it is his joy of dance that lets him communicate his emotions and it also provides a brief escape from the world. With excellent creative aspects, direction and choreography and deeply rich performances, Phoenix Theatre's production of this award winning musical is both upbeat and joyful and a stirring, powerful and emotionally rewarding experience.
Billy Elliot the Musical runs through December 24th, 2016, at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling (602) 254-2151
Music by Elton John
Cast: (in alphabetical order)
*Members of Actors' Equity Association