Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
I learned at a talk-back, after the performance I attended, that when Executive/Artistic Director Murray Chase first proposed Billy Elliot to Brad Wages, whose title is Lead Teacher and Silver Foxes Director, but who also directs several main stage productions each year for Venice Theatre, Mr. Wages' reply was to get Dewayne Barrett to direct. He was absolutely correctMr. Barrett is known all over the region as the go-to guy for dance shows, and Billy Elliot certainly is that. I can't imagine a better production using volunteer talents.
My personal experience with Billy Elliot includes the national tour in Tampa, which I loved, and trying to watch the filmed version of the last performance in London's West End, which I found totally unable to capture the musical's magic, despite a superb cast. The Venice Theatre production is far more involving, even with a cast that is less crisp. This is a show that has to be seen live.
Dewayne Barrett used workshops in his search of potential Billys last spring and ended up dual-casting the role with two young men from Florida, albeit each a distance away from the theater. The role is shared by Carson Maschmeier of Fort Meyers and Patrick Higgins of Hudson, Florida. I saw Mr. Higgins in the role. Billy Elliot is the Annie of roles for a young boy, and believe me, good Annies are going to be far more plentiful than passable Billy Elliots. The role calls for a phenomenally talented dancer, equally adept at tap, swing dance, and most of all, ballet. The part also requires acting talent and singing ability. Mr. Higgins' greatest strengths are tap and ballet, although his performance in "Born to Boogie" is quite strong. His acting is also a major plus, and his singing is good, but not his strongest suit. In the breakout number "Electricity" the song element gets a little lost because of his failure to build an arc from separate phrases. This is a wallop of a performance from a young man with great dancing talents and more.
The supporting cast is also very strong. Laura Bissell as dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson draws on experience living in Northern England to make the character authentic and I suspect she also helped others with accents and other tips. Matthew M. Ryder comes to the role of Billy's dad after two highly acclaimed leading roles at Sarasota Players last season. While this role is much more acting than singing, based on what I see, Mr. Ryder is a welcome addition to the local talent pool. Judah Woomert as Billy's best friend Michael joins his father Cory as a strong up and coming performer who improves with each role. He tears up the stage with Patrick Higgins to make "Expressing Yourself" the absolute highlight of act one.
Peg Harvey plays Billy's somewhat daffy grandmother and there are nice turns by Patrick Tancey as brother Tony and Alana Opie as Billy's dead mother. Chaz Glunk dances the role of Older Billy with great polish. All of the accents are reasonably good, better than many professional productions I have covered in other venues. Special mention must be made of the entire ensemble as miners, police, ballet students and townspeople. Their contribution to the production is a major one.
Music director Rebecca Heintz does a fine job, but her tempos seem a little sluggish, possibly to better accompany the dancing. Tim Wisgerhof, scenic designer is another star of this production. His set functions brilliantly to quickly accommodate changes. The change to and from Billy's house is a triumph. Nicholas Hartman provides very effective costumes for all, richly detailed. Lighting designer John Michael Andzulis also contributes strongly to this production. Sound design is by Dorian Boyd and Jaclyn Ledoux and all I can say is that, in spite of accents, much of what is being said onstage is understandable.
Billy Elliot is a huge undertaking for any community theater. A production this strong is a total triumph!
Venice Theater presents Billy Elliot the Musical through December 4, 2016. 140 West Tampa Ave., Venice, FL. Box Office (941) 488-1115 or www.venicestage.com.
Cast: Musicians: Director/Choreographer: Thomas DeWayne Barrett
Director/Choreographer: Thomas DeWayne Barrett