In this stirring production of the musical, Billy Elliot, Playhouse on the Square takes audience members on an electrifying journey into a village torn apart by strife and held up by the hope of a young boy yearning to break free.
The story takes place in northern England, where coal mining has been the lifeblood of the village economy for generations. Now, with a strike in place, the men are out of work, fighting desperately against two foes: The police who want to silence them, and the scabs who dare to defy the union by working jobs left vacant by the miners.
It’s against this stark, working-class backdrop that Billy’s story unfolds, a young teen, orphaned by his mother, beginning to explore his own identity and daring to express himself in ways his father neither understands nor accepts. Turning his back on boxing lessons, Billy is drawn instead to ballet class. As the show gathers momentum, it’s the tension between those two worlds that provide the sparks that make this production shine.
Thirteen-year-old Benjamin Cheng does an electrifying job portraying Billy, showing promise early on as a dancer without revealing too much, too soon. It’s a huge role for a young teen (he’s on stage for nearly the entire show), and one that gives him a chance to unfurl his multi-faceted talents as a singer, dancer, and actor. He tackles the choreography with aplomb, revealing both athleticism and lyricism at times.
While the show's choreography is strong, and riveting in places, Director/Choreographer Geoffrey Goldberg doesn’t give Cheng much help in the first act’s final number, "Angry Dance," which is such a frenetic jumble it leaves the audience feeling a bit confused.
By contrast, one of strongest numbers is "Solidarity," which pairs the young girls, dancing in frothy, pink tutus, against the brooding presence of the miners and police clad in black. Here, the village’s future struggles to move beyond its past and in the middle is Billy, trying to forge his own way ahead. The idea of solidarity is a perplexing one, yet with crisp dance steps and strong vocals, this number is a standout.
While I’m usually a fan of Michael Detroit’s work, his portrayal of Billy’s father, while urgent and strong, feels a bit too polished. Though gruff, he lacks the sharp anger and confusion the father should embody, seeing his son exploring realms so foreign to his own. By contrast, Kim Sanders, who plays the dance mistress Mrs. Wilkinson, is more on point.
Her swagger in the opening numbers gives you the sense that she’s taught these classes a million times before — perhaps as much for herself as for her young students — yet when Billy enters, she suddenly snaps to attention and becomes more purposeful, reminded of why she chose to teach in the first place. The exchanges between Detroit and Sanders as they circle each other are passionate and you get a sense that both come to understand the other as the story progresses.
Billy’s relationship with his best friend, Michael, played handsomely by Seth Judice, is relegated to a minor role in this production, which is unfortunate, since he shares Billy’s search for identity, though that’s not clearly conveyed. However, the dance number with Cheng and Judice is fun to watch, with Judice showing off his prowess as a tapper. Other performances of note are the brief appearances of Billy’s mother, played by Cayley Smith with her angelic voice, and Travis Bradley, who portrays the Adult Billy and dances beautifully.
The second act feels a bit anticlimactic after the power of the first, but overall, this production shines brightly. The audience on the Saturday night I attended was a sell-out and up for a standing ovation almost before the actors had fully assembled. Rightly so, the cast brings this memorable tale to brilliant life.