Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Set in the mid-1980s, the book by Lee Hall follows the plot of his 2000 film screenplay very closely, placing the action during the U.K. miners' strike that began in 1984. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher vehemently opposed the strike and it led to acts of violence between those striking and the police and resulted in the closure of many of Britain's coal mines. Billy Elliot is a 12-year-old boy whose father and older brother are miners on strike. Billy's mother passed away several years back and his grandmother is starting to show signs of senility. The only future for the boy seems to be a job working in the mines, assuming the strike ends in the miners' favor. Billy finds an escape from this world through a dance class he stumbles upon, but he hides the fact that he is attending classes as he is afraid that no one will understand his new found passion. His dance teacher believes he has a gift that needs to be nurtured but will his family agree?
The score, with lyrics by Hall and music by Elton John, is tuneful and fits the setting and characters with a wide range of music styles that work well to present a balance between Billy's personal journey and the struggles of the people in his town.
The Mesa Encore Theatre leads all deliver nuanced performances of these realistic characters who have flaws but also layers and emotion. As Billy, Ryan Marlowe is quite good. While his singing abilities aren't as strong as his dancing skills, his portrayal of this complicated and lonely but very personable young man is full of charm, pain and love. It is an enduring performance. Max Reed delivers a fine portrayal of Billy's emotionally distant father Jackie. Through Reed's even measured performance we feel the suffering, stubbornness and confusion Jackie has as he tries to understand how to raise his young son. We also see the changes Jackie makes once he starts to comprehend his son's gift. The last few scenes Reed and Marlowe have together are heartbreaking.
Katy Callie is excellent as Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy's dance teacher. She is full of fire and passion. She also has a lovely singing voice which excels on her songs and she has a deep, natural connection with Marlowe and the other young cast members. In smaller parts, Barbara McBain does well as Billy's daft grandma. Her solo song, in which she sings about her past and her love of dance, is a highlight. Kristin Mabb is sweet and charming as the ghost of Billy's mum, while Noah McNeil is simply sensational as Billy's friend Michael who likes to dress up in women's clothes. His number is a showstopper. Griffin P. Siroky is superb as Billy's stubborn older brother.
Director John Staniunas ensures the emotional scenes resonate though he isn't able to find a way to clarify the show's beginning, which is a little chaotic and confusing, especially since he chooses to have multiple members of the cast deliver the opening narration that in other productions is usually accompanied by actual newsreel footage that helps set the time and place. The opening of the second act, with the miners and their families putting on a Christmas show that portrays Thatcher as a tyrant, also isn't as biting as it needs to be to truly resonate their hatred toward this woman. Choreographer Cae Collmar provides plenty of fun steps though some appear to be simple and repetitive and Billy's dance that ends act one, in which he is extremely frustrated, needs to be much angrier in order for the audience to clearly understand the pain and suffering Billy is feeling. While the decision to eliminate the moment in the show that usually features Billy flying is understandable due to, I assume, the cost and difficulties of creating that moment in a community theatre production, the elimination of the character of Older Billy in that scene seems odd. However, Staniunas and Collmar do use the four young female dancers in this scene and a flowing large sheet to great effect. Also, the elimination of the fun and upbeat curtain call dance that features the entire cast shortchanges the audiences' enjoyment somewhat and also unfortunately ends the show on a very somber note.
Mesa Encore Theatre is fortunate to be able to use the sets and costumes from Phoenix Theatre's recent production of Billy Elliot. Robert Kovach's scenic design and Cari Sue Smith's costumes expertly portray the working class characters and rough mining town. Kerry Jordan and Elizabeth Verslues adapted the designs for the Mesa Arts Center space and added a few additional elements. Klay Wandelear's lighting delivers some stunning visual moments. Dialect coach Julie Van Lith ensures fairly consistent British accents across the large cast.
Even though it focuses on individuals struggling to get by and find their place in life, Billy Elliot the Musical is an upbeat and joyful musical with a heartfelt and emotionally rich book and score. While there are a few small shortcomings, Mesa Encore Theatre's production has a gifted cast and solid direction which results in an emotionally rewarding experience.
Billy Elliot the Musical runs at Mesa Encore Theatre through March 19th, 2017, with performances at the Mesa Arts Center at 1 East Main Street in Mesa. Tickets can be ordered by calling (480) 644-6500 or at mesaencoretheatre.com.
Music by Elton John