Is there ever a right time or a wrong time to pursue your dreams?
Based on the successful 2000 film, this musical adaptation directed by Bill Millerd differs in subtle ways but still maintains much of the ideology and central themes of acceptance, social discord and individual expression against staggering odds.
Billy is a sympathetic character. His father is flummoxed by the recent loss of his wife, his brother is an angry bully and they’re all caught up in the bitter British miner’s strike of 1984.
The year-long strike has plunged the residents of County Durham into poverty and unrest because they relied on the mining industry (for those unfamiliar with the era, page 24 of the program guide offers a handy glossary for referencing terms used throughout the play).
One day, after a much despised boxing lesson, Billy stumbles into a ballet class taught by Mrs. Wilkinson. He soon falls in love with dancing and continues to be secretly mentored by Mrs. Wilkinson despite his father’s objections.
Recognizing true talent in Billy, she encourages him to audition for the Royal Ballet School but both rancorous miners’ strike and family opposition dash his hopes. In the end, the town unites together to give Billy a chance to escape from the fate of his coal-mining predecessors.
The storyline is by no means revolutionary or profound. In a production nearing three hours in length, the magic lies in its execution. Part of the credit goes to Ted Roberts’ imaginative sets which pit utilitarian realism against glitzy extravagance.
The Elliot’s stacked residence is reminiscent of a life-size doll house where characters dart in and out, diverting the audience’s attention from room to room. The Miner’s Hall is austere but the make-believe worlds of Billy and Michael are colourful and hopeful.
The stage is flanked by colliery head frames that stand like silent guardians, a reminder that the coal conflict still looms in the background.
Hall’s wit-laden script is skillfully delivered by the multi-talented cast who manage to execute decent Geordie accents. Caitriona Murphy as the no-nonsense Mrs. Wilkinson has deft comedic timing while Warren Kimmel plays Billy’s frustrated dad with conviction. Valin Shinyei is a scene-stealer as Billy’s high-spirited friend who clearly has a gay streak.
Unlike the film version, the homosexuality theme within the musical is openly accepted and celebrated. Perhaps this is a by-product of being staged in a city such as Vancouver where gay rights are championed. I am additionally astounded by the profusion of young talent in this city.
The youth in this production can tap, ballet and sing with respectable proficiency, making them triple threats as they progress in their careers.
The meaty role of Billy Elliot falls on the skinny shoulders of 13-year old Nolan Fahey. Making an Arts Club debut, his acting prowess could use some fine-tuning but he has undeniable talent. When first appearing on stage in boxing shorts and muscle shirt, Fahey looks scrawny and fragile.
Once he starts dancing you realize that the skin and bones is actually muscle and sinew packed into the body of a trim athlete.
The way Fahey connects his gawky pre-teen persona with that of an electrifying dancer is what sells the show. One of the most touching scenes of the play is the synchronized Swan Lake dance of Billy with his imagined older self (played by Matthew Cluff), a prodigious ballet performer.
It’s an eerily beautiful sequence full of grace and technique but it also glimpses the future for Billy. Spoiler alert: the musical does not end the same celebratory way the film does.
In a musical production, the orchestral team is just as important as the actors. There are too many to name here but their bios in the program illustrates the breadth of musical talent that goes into this show. Same is true for choreographer Valerie Easton and ballet advisor Suzanne Ouellette although not all the dance numbers hit the mark.
The Angry Dance at the conclusion of Act I is passionately performed but fails to unleash a frenzy of emotional turmoil. In contrast, the Solidarity dance, one where delicate ballerinas mingle with the clash of the brusque miners and hostile policemen, is profound and unsettling. This sequence lays bare the harsh reality that conflict rages on as people continue in their daily lives.
Hall’s script also juxtaposes the sullied with the pure, toying with the theme of the innocence of children by sprinkling course language throughout scenes with youngsters. This exposes how the troubles of adults are forced onto the younger generation, without their consent or knowledge.
A more worldly theme in the play is the political invective of the late Margaret Thatcher, yet this criticism seems contradictory since Billy’s struggle for individualism – to realize a personal dream rather than group solidarity – is the essence of Thatcherism. Thus, we foreshadow the breakdown of the unions and the ultimate failure of the miners’ strike of 1984.
The final scene with Billy’s father and brother returning to work, singing a cappella with only their headlamps shining through the darkness is both poignant and piteous. This scene is not meant to be a comfortable resolution but rather a hopeful one.
I need not mention that the expressive music for this ambitious production is penned by Sir Elton John because there are plenty of grand achievements to draw audiences to this production. In true Sir Elton fashion, he manages an effusive tear-jerker song of the night in The Letter.
Billy Elliot continues at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage Tuesdays through Sundays until July 10.
Photos by David Cooper.