Billy Elliot the Musical
Theatre Cedar Rapids — through July 22
For a story set in Thatcher-era England, Billy Elliot the Musical has surprisingly strong connections to eastern Iowa. There’s Alex Ko, an Iowa City native who played the title character on Broadway. And there’s the late Basil Thompson, a renowned dancer, ballet master and instructor who taught in the University of Iowa Department of Dance, whose life story mirrors that of Billy Elliot (though the creators deny any connection).
Now, Theatre Cedar Rapids further connects the story to the community with a strong production under the direction of Angie Toomsen with music direction by Benjamin Schmidt and choreography by Aaron Canterbury. The show opened on Friday, June 30.
With book and lyrics by Lee Hall, who wrote the 2000 non-musical film version of the tale, and music by Elton John, Billy Elliot the Musical tells the story of a boy who discovers his love and talent for dancing during the dark days of the UK miners’ strike of 1984-85. It’s a textured story of societal expectation, the end of a way of life, the importance of family and solidarity with one’s mates and the value of individuality and beauty in a sometimes ugly world.
The ensemble of men who play the miners frame the story with powerful songs of unity at the beginning and end of the show. With deep, resonant voices, they pledge themselves to defending their way of life against enormous odds. “Once We Were Kings,” which the miners sing late in the show, is perhaps the production’s strongest moment. The stirring vocals combine with the haunting use of the lights on the miners’ helmets to create a wholly memorable moment.
The production features a number of standout individual performances as well. Young Jesse Flaherty, who will enter 6th grade in the fall, is simply delightful in the title role. He’s an impressive dancer with a sweet singing voice, excellent comic timing and a knack for the County Durham accent (which some of the other performers struggle with a bit). His joy in dancing — not just his character’s joy, but his personal joy — is palpable. His technique is certainly strong, especially for someone his age (and Canterbury’s choreography asks quite a lot of him), but it’s the verve he brings to each moment that truly connects with the audience.
Tad Paulson plays Billy’s father, a man struggling to hold things together in the wake of the death of his wife, stresses of the strike and the challenges of raising two very different young men. Paulson taps into the extremes of his character’s emotions — his love for his family, his hope for his livelihood, his anger of the unfairness of his lot, his stubborn pride and tender heart — pitching each moment perfectly. His performance of “Deep Into the Ground” near the top of the second act is heartrending. He brings something of Springsteen to the quiet, tragic vocal. The moment when Billy joins him at the song’s end is lovely.
Gus Elwell, who plays Michael, Billy’s crossdressing friend who encourages him to express his individuality, is a linchpin of the production’s success. His relationship with Billy, fraught with his romantic yearnings for his friend, is sweetly portrayed, and his fierce commitment to being himself is both hilarious and inspiring. He and Flaherty nearly brought the house down (with some support from the ensemble) in the tap dance fantasy “Expressing Yourself.”
Tina Conroy gives it her all as Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy’s dance teacher, but she is given some of the show’s weakest material with which to work. Her big musical moments, “Shine” and “We Were Born to Boogie,” are not great numbers (the former employs the phrase “razzle dazzle” with such frequency that I left the theater humming a tune from Chicago), though she does all she can with them. Indeed, Conroy, Flaherty and Jake Stigers ham it up winningly on “We Were Born to Boogie.”
The quality of the songs is an ongoing issue in Billy Elliott the Musical. By and large, John’s music is appealing and varied, ranging from anthems to pop tunes. But Hall is no Bernie Taupin or Tim Rice; his lyrics are uninspired, leaving the music to do the heavy lifting. Sometimes that’s enough to carry a song — especially given the quality of the pit orchestra and the high level of the cast’s vocals — but not always.
Derek Easton’s set is an effective partner in the storytelling as is Amanda L. Mayfield’s lighting design. Ben Cyr’s sound design is excellent throughout and Joni Sackett’s costumes are impeccable.
The cast, crew, musicians and directing team of Billy Elliot the Musical elevate the material, and they earned the standing ovation they received on Friday night.
Billy Elliot the Musical continues through July 22. Tickets are available by calling 319-366-8591 or by visiting www.theatrecr.org.