Sunday, June 26, 2016

With dazzle and heart, Bobdirex's 'Billy Eliot' sets a boy's dance dreams in a dying English coal town

You can count on Bob Harbin to come up once a year with a big-hearted production that reaches out to audiences in a big way. This year, an odd timeliness — with Americans more focused on Britain than normal in the wake of the Brexit vote — helps "Billy Elliot" stand out even more.

Seen in the second performance of the run of nine (through July 10) at Marian University Theatre, Bobdirex's "Billy Elliot" succeeds not only because of the usual pizazz he generates from large casts, but also for the captivating portrayal of the title character by Thomas Whitcomb.

Thomas Whitcomb as Billy Elliot takes flight into a future with the electricity of dancing.
Whitcomb's singing and dancing fit splendidly the demanding role of the younger son in a miner's household who accidentally finds himself smitten with ballet. But what puts the shiny cap on both those skills is Whitcomb's charming onstage persona, the convincing way he blends Billy's naivete and nascent ambition. In Elton John and Lee Hall's inspiring scenario, the talented lad is nurtured by a tough dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, here given gruffness and grit, as well as insight, in Holly Stultz's performance.

Life at home is a school of hard knocks, overshadowed by the premature death of Billy's mother. Now he fights to find himself in a household consisting of an eccentric grandma (Miki Mathioudakis) and a militant older brother (Tyler Ostrander) who has followed the boys' hard-bitten, but deep-down sentimental, widower dad (Bill Book) into the coal mines in northern England. The labor force there is meeting its greatest challenge from the anti-labor government of Margaret Thatcher in the mid-1980s. It will not turn out well.

The tense juxtaposition of Billy's affinity for dance and the union's struggle for victory during a long strike is beautifully captured in an ensemble number, "Solidarity," that interlaces dance instruction with miners taking to the streets to defend their collective bargaining rights. It's just one of Kenny Shepard's well-knit, intricate choreographic designs.

Its closest match is the show's finale, a riveting celebration of community and dance that also functions as an extended curtain call. Based on a reprise of the first act's "Shine," in which Mrs. Wilkinson sets forth a dance credo that Billy will adopt wholeheartedly after much resistance at home, this production's conclusion is in the patented Bobdirex tradition of coordinated exuberance.

Supporting roles were well-filled. If memory serves, I've never seen Bill Book even slightly unsuitable for any role, dating back to his starring role in the musical "Nine" at Theatre on the Square's original home on Fountain Square. He wins again as Mr. Elliot, tending the character's evolution from Billy's opponent to ally, and indicating the effect of his wife's death in a folklike ballad solo, "Deep Into the Ground," introducing a somber note into the miners' Christmas party, keynoted by its sarcastic "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher." Book's tense dialogue with Stults' Mrs. Wilkinson, a turning point in the father's attitude toward Billy's dreams, was one of the show's highlights.

Tyler Ostrander strikes sparks as the feisty Tony, scoffing at his brother's ambitions and slow to accept their dad's conversion to them. Miki Mathioudakis looked lovably disheveled and coarsened by life as Grandma, and her Act 1 vocal solo — complete with a multiple-partner dream dance — was both hilarious and touching.

As Billy's best friend Michael Caffrey,  Jack Ducat adds an ingratiating endorsement of the joy of being different in "Expressing Yourself," a sweetly inspirational song including the boys' cavorting with three dancers dressed as mannequins. Trisha Shepard's brief appearances as the ghost of the boys' mother underlined the story's disarming sentimentality.

The workers' choruses ("The Stars Look Down" and "Once We Were Kings") were stirring under the direction of Trevor Fanning, who coordinated the singing with a mostly spot-on pit band.  Another kind of solidarity was cutely rendered by the troupe of girls portraying Mrs. Wilkinson's other students.

Whitcomb's remarkable charisma flashed forth in the first-act finale, "Angry Dance," featuring Matthew Ford Cunningham's versatile lighting design. Speaking of lights, however, there was some clumsy follow-spot work in the second act, a singular instance of technical trouble Saturday night.

General use of face mics, while a necessity on a large stage that would lose even well-projected voices acoustically, sometimes meant that words were unclear. Some of this may be due to the need for speech authenticity, as the cast had been pretty well coached in northern England accents.

Something crucial was lost, however, when the woman with a clipboard charged with scheduling Billy's Royal Ballet School audition talked to Billy in flat American. Though the part is tiny, this character needs to speak like a hoity-toity Londoner, in something approaching "received pronunciation" in England, to help underline the class distinctions that Billy Elliot faces in the course of realizing his dream.

The show has one impressive indication of the loftiness of Billy's aspirations in a dream ballet, a nicely characterized duo number with Stuart Coleman of Dance Kaleidoscope as the older Billy. Coleman's professional status was acknowledged in Shepard's more demanding requirements of him, which were met handsomely.

But Whitcomb's dancing was accomplished enough in this number, and in "Angry Dance" even more than the idealistic "Electricity," to make Billy Elliot's lofty goals in this heart-warming production look reachable. And that promise is what "Billy Elliot" simply has to deliver. It does so here.

[Photo by Zach Rosing]