Theater Review: ‘Billy Elliot’ dances to success for Civic reopening
“Billy Elliot The Musical” is a multi-layered show that has a bit of everything: family conflict, single parenthood, politics, labor strife, mentor and student, elder-care problems, boxing and ballet.
It’s an alphabet-soup mix of themes that would challenge any community theater, much less a troupe returning to its main stage for the first time in about a year to open a renovated and restored new space.
Civic Theatre of Allentown’s exuberant production of “Billy Elliot The Musical” hits all the right notes and steps in its Lehigh Valley debut on the main stage where it continues through Oct. 28 in the historic 19th Street Theatre, Allentown.
Director William Sanders, assisted by three choreographers, including Deena Linn, Sarah Parker and Jennifer Haltzman Tracy, the latter for the ballet sequences, keeps the complex storyline streamlined and moving briskly, propelled by a superb 10-piece orchestra, conducted by music director Frank Anonia.
The book by Lee Hall, who also wrote the lyrics, is based on the 1984 British National Union of Mineworkers strike in the coal fields of northern England. The basis for the 2008 Broadway musical, which received 10 Tony Awards, is the 2000 “Billy Elliot” film, nominated for three Oscars, for which Lee wrote the sceenplay.
The musical posits several opposing forces.
In the midst of the strife is young Billy Elliot (the extraordinary Parker James Fullmore), who seems to be pulled in each direction, that of a boxing career, a future working in the mines, or the possibility of breaking out through a dedication to studying ballet.
The gauntlet is thrown down from the start of the Oct. 12 opening night performance seen for this theater review, in the very first number, “The Stars Look Down,” with powerful chorus singing by the Full Company in the clear signature of music by Elton John, which elevates the show throughout.
Early on, Billy faces a choice in “Shine,” as Mrs. Wilkinson (deliciously peevish Kathleen Oswalt), the ballet school teacher, and the Ballet Girls (nine impressive young dancers), make the case that each has the opportunity to be true to one’s heart’s desire.
As if to emphasize choices made and chances lost, “We’d Go Dancing” by Grandma (the ever-sprightly scene-stealing Joann Wilchek Basist) and the Men’s Ensemble posits that the music never really ends for those who follow their bliss.
The other polarity pulling on Billy is his Mum (a nicely ephemeral Veronica Bocian), who in spirit sings “Dear Billy,” accompanied by Mrs. Wilkinson and Billy, giving him inspiration and fortitude.
Matters turn crucial in Act 2, where Dad (an amazing Robert Trexler) looms, conflicted about his job (as miner and father) and his son’s dreams, exemplified by back-to-back show-stoppers, “Deep Into The Ground” with the Full Company, and “He Could Go And He Could Shine,” with Dad, Tony (Ryan Murphy) and the Ensemble.
These numbers set up the musical’s show-stopper of show-stoppers, “Electricity,” proving why without a phenomenal young talent like Parker James Fullmore,” there might be no “Billy Elliot The Musical” at Civic.
Fullmore is in great form, has a terrific stage presence, clear voice, and is poised and athletic in ballet, dance and gymnastic scenes. He has a great future on stage and screen. See him now in his Lehigh Valley debut at Civic. This is a “do you remember when ... “ performance.
Also memorable is Oswalt, who, though she has given Civic audiences many wonderful performances (“Nine To Five,” “God Of Carnage,” “Cabaret”) outdoes herself as Mrs. Wilkinson. Oswalt plays the range of the bristling, overbearing dance teacher: sassy and brassy, but also tough and tender. She’s in fine voice in dialogue and song and has some great dance moves.
Special mention must also be given to Trexler, who has impressed previously at Civic (“Young Frankenstein,” “The Full Monty”), but reaches down and in for something more as Dad. His singing is something to behold.
Wilchek-Basist also goes deep, bringing a special pathos to Grandma, imbued with an understanding of the dignity of age and a still flickering humor of youth.
Kudos to Costume-Lighting Designer Will Morris and Technical Director-Scenic Designer Joshua Deruosi who bring a gritty realism to the settings and characters with shop-worn sensibilities that bolster the entire production.
Sanders deserves heartfelt praise for bringing this pertinent production to life to fill the West End Theater District’s storied venue with a show of equal splendor.
“Billy Elliot The Musical” is a gem of a production in a newly-minted gem of a theater.
“Billy Elliot” is a triumph for Sanders, for Parker James Fullmore, for the show’s cast, musicians and technical staff, and for Civic Theatre of Allentown’s board of directors and benefactors.
Tickets: Civic Theater box office, 527 N. 19th St., Allentown; civictheatre.com; 610-432-8943