In the middle of the snow, and the rain, and the wind, and the cold, and a million people heading into Boston for the PATRIOTS’ victorious rolling rally onto City Hall Plaza (am still in SHOCK and AWE at that miraculous triumph), I found myself practicing evasive maneuvers in order to make my way to WHEELOCK FAMILY THEATRE’s school matinee of BILLY ELLIOT The Musical. What a trip– this stupendous production left a theater full of kids enthralled and this critic glued for nearly three hours.
Billy Elliot is a boy from a poor, Thatcher-era English mining town, who– in the middle of a crippling strike with livelihoods on the line– decides that instead of taking boxing lessons, he prefers ballet! HUH?? You can imagine how that goes over with his dad, his big brother, and all their pals in the pub struggling to get by, and whose only idea about ballet involves tutus and “poofters in tights.”
BILLY ELLIOT The Musical celebrates the guts and talent it takes to pursue your own path against all odds, face the critics, and remain true to yourself. Now that sounds like a show the PATS could wrap their arms around. It’s also packed with top-notch singing and dancing — ballet and tap–executed by a diverse ensemble of performers playing ballerinas, coal miners, policemen. In the title role, the supremely talented and charismatic 13 year-old Seth Judice as Billy, takes us through his struggle–and we root for him every glorious step along the way.
The show pulls no punches about how hard Billy’s life is; his mom is dead; his grand dad was an alcoholic; his grandmother (a tender Cheryl D. Singleton) recalls a troubled marriage; his down-on-his luck dad (Neil Gustafson) is gruff but warm-hearted; his tough older brother (a fiery Jared Troilo) doesn’t understand him. But one very influential teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, does. Aimee Doherty is appropriately rough around the edges as the chain-smoking ballet instructor who first spots Billy’s gift and guides him to an audition that might change his life. Shane Boucher is fearless, funny, and endearing as Michael Billy’s cross-dressing best bud.
There’s some rough language, mild swearing, loaded cultural-sexual-socio-economic issues: homosexuality, domestic violence, poverty, alcoholism, and the politics and plight of the working man and woman. There’s also a potent antidote: the power of art in this combustible mix. Billy’s passion and talent just might provide a way out– and uplift a whole community if they can stretch themselves to encompass Billy and his dreams.
BILLY ELLIOT The Musical is ingenious and inspiring because it dares to describe what art is, in a way that is completely understandable–and that is no small feat. When Billy describes what it feels like when he dances in Act II’s climactic number, or when Mrs. Wilkinson describes that dance is something more than technical, that it’s an expression of one’s true self–the audience GETS IT. This show makes clear that a person’s unique voice deserves respect, that it takes many shapes, and that it’s a through line to our humanity.
Here’s what I noticed. Many of the kids in the audience may have giggled and gasped and whispered at different parts of the show, but were completely wrapped up in Billy’s experience; and when it was over, and the young actor who played Michael the young man who cross-dressed came out for his bow, he got some of the biggest applause of all.
Take your kids and see this production of BILLY ELLIOT The Musical— not just for the singing and dancing which are first rate, not just for the performers who will win your heart, but because it is a show about why and how the arts are crucial, and how they inspire kids to have the courage to be their true, best selves. That’s a fact. See BILLY ELLIOT The Musical at Wheelock Family Theatre through February 26.