Keystone Performing Arts Academy presents Billy Elliot the Musical based on the 2000 film by the same name. The music is by Elton John, and the book and lyrics are by Lee Hall, who also wrote the film’s screenplay. The musical opened in 2005 in London followed by a Broadway run that won ten Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
The story is set against the turbulent background of the 1984-85 miners’ strike in the northern mining village of Easington, England. You can easily see how this story could occur in any small mining or manufacturing town in the States. Billy (Blaise Meanor) is a motherless pre-teen boy beginning to grow up and searching for his calling.
As is so often the custom in small rural communities, the son is expected to follow in his father Jackie’s (J. Alex Noble) footsteps and become a miner like his brother Tony (Chris Morris), and his father’s father before him.
In hopes for a different future for Billy, the family scrapes together 50 pence per week for him to go to the boxing class at the union hall. It becomes obvious during the lessons from miner and obnoxious boxing instructor George (Cody Sweet) that boxing is not going to be Billy’s calling.
After the boxing class, Billy is assigned to pass the hall keys on to the leader of a dance class, the exuberant and frustrated Mrs. Wilkinson (Chelsea Bartel). Billy lingers a bit and finds himself connecting with the music and its ability to cause him to “dance”.
With some persuasion from Mrs. Wilkerson, Billy decides to secretly join the class (secretly since his family would never understand) as “boxing is for lads, not ballet”. At home, his grandmother (Cynthia Dougherty) reveals her abusive relationship with her dead husband. She too loved to dance, which was her mental escape from the abuse.
Billy confides his dance class attendance to his friend Michael (Sam O’Neill), who is happy to listen while he dresses up in his sister’s clothing , a pastime he can explain away very simply: “Me Dad does it all the time.” Free expression, is after all, Michael’s theme.
His dancing secret isn’t kept for long, and anger erupts when Billy’s father discovers that his son has been frittering away his hard won 50 pence on ballet instead of boxing. Mrs. Wilkinson believes in Billy’s innate talent and makes a secret offer of free lessons to prepare Billy for an audition for the Royal Ballet School.
The strike, meanwhile, is getting more and more heated. There are pitched battles between the police and the miners that split friends and spur Tony Elliot to take the law into his own hands as he raids his father’s toolbox for a weapon to use against the police.
Billy’s father unexpectedly stumbles upon him dancing. Mr. Elliot, moved by Billy’s dance heads off to see Mrs. Wilkinson and find out more about the audition for the ballet school. He is determined to create a better life for Billy outside of the mine even if means becoming a scab to earn money in order to pay for the audition and tuition.
Tony and the strikers agree to pool together what little money they have to help Billy go to London to audition. Additional money offered from the mining company itself is unwelcome but it provides the resources to send Billy and his father to the audition in London.
The principal characters in this production with the exception of Blaise Meanor’s Billy and Sam O’Neill’s Michael are not very likable. Under Chris Saunders direction, pretty much everyone else comes across as angry, almost yelling their lines. Anger is an appropriate reaction for a community struggling with the lack of food and money resulting from a long labor strike. However, anger alone does not create empathy between audience and characters. There also needs to be conveyed a sense of hopelessness and frustration amongst the villagers. There also needs to be a shared connection with the audience; “gosh this could happen to me”.
Meanor is a 14-year-old student at Seneca Valley Intermediate High School with a nice developing voice. He is not a fabulous dancer, but neither is Billy. “Both” have inherent talent that needs to be nurtured and developed.
O’Neill’s as Billy’s cross-dressing fun loving best friend offers a charming and refreshing break from the others characters’ anger. The line “Me Dad does it all the time” drew a nice tension breaking laugh from the audience. O’Neill was campy but subtle and a breath of fresh air despite his character’s struggle to fit in with the community.
Cynthia Dougherty’s revealing performance of Grandma’s Song was unfortunately marred by microphone disappearance on this night.
Credit goes to the entire cast for their efforts in trying to master the Geordie northern English dialect.
Musical Director Carolyn Violi did a nice job handling the score when the sound system cooperated. There were no visible musicians or credited players.
To be compelling this production requires that all characters and the audience feel Billy’s newly discovered passion for dance. That passion serves to inspire his family and community and changes Billy’s life forever.
For me, this production lacks the “heart, humor and passion” that has generated a legion of fans for Billy Elliot the Musical.
Billy Elliott the Musical presented by Keystone State Music Theatre August 17th and 18th at 8:00 pm at the Rotary Amphitheater in Cranberry Township Community Park (111 Ernie Mashuda Dr., Cranberry Township, PA 16066)
Unfortunately, Billy Elliot has already closed.
Thanks to Keystone Performing Arts Academy for the complementary tickets.