It seems a bit odd to write a review a week after you see a show. But, it is interesting when you think about what stuck with you and resonates. Last weekend, I attended the opening night of BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL at Beck. I had never seen the musical before, but I did remember the 2000 movie. I was also thinner then, but I digress. The film is set in north-eastern England during the 1984 -85 coal miners’ strike. The movie invaded the film festivals and garnered much warranted attention and critical success. Then in 2005, a musical version was created,which debuted on Broadway in 2008 with Book and Lyrics by Lee Hall and Music by Sir Elton John. The Musical garnered ten Tony Awards and ten Drama Desk Awards including, in each case, Best Musical.
To explain a bit more of the story of BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL, it portrays an important time in the life of 11-year-old Billy Elliot (Seth Judice), a coal miner’s son in Northern England. His life is forever changed one day when he stumbles upon a ballet class during his weekly boxing lesson. Before long, he finds himself in dance, demonstrating the kind of raw talent seldom seen by the class’ exacting instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson (a fierce Katherine DeBoer*). With a tart tongue and a never-ending stream of cigarettes in her hand, Mrs. Wilkinson’s zest for teaching is revived when she sees Billy’s potential. However, his family finds the whole idea repugnant. The result is a powerful story of acceptance, tolerance, and love.
There are some fantastic performances surrounding the world of Billy Elliot. Katherine DeBoer as Mrs. Wilkinson, is certainly at the forefront of a talented company of actors. The moment she walks on stage, stands with that cigarette hanging out of her mouth, without saying a word, she communicates everything you need to know about this shot and a beer gal. DeBoer’s accent is impeccable and her comedic chops are in fine tuned order, as she gets laughs from precise delivery. But, the other side is the strength she shows in her defense of Billy. Providing a characterization in which you believe this woman could kick the ass of every coal miner in town.
A welcome addition to the Cleveland scene is the arrival of Allen O’Reilly*. What a pleasure to watch a well crafted portrayal of Billy’s father. The arc of the connection that he has with his son is a powerful journey, and resonates with anyone who has not been accepted by family and/or friends. In the creative hands of O’Reilly, his transformation into a loving parent who moves past his own inherent prejudice is masterfully delivered.
The last time I saw Riley Ewing, he was running around the stage in his underwear humping a pink pig pinata in the Beck production Heathers, the Musical. He was hilarious. So in some ways, I was not expecting the exceptional darker and tormented side of Ewing as Billy’s’ brother Tony. An accomplished actor can make you laugh, and when required, create a hard shell of raw emotion buried deep within years of disappointment and personal pain, as required from this story. Ewing captures and executes a brilliant depiction. So much so, when the time comes that love wins, he adds a critical layer to Billy’s victory of self accomplishment.
Hester Lewellen is fantastic as Billy’s Grandma. She is a master of comedy, and delivers a touching and funny dose of Grandma stills live at home antics. Bob Goddard gives us some Mickey Goldmill realness, with an english twist as Billy’s boxing coach George. Jade McGee as Debbie, creates a young lady who is definitely in touch with her feelings, and definitely would like to touch Billy. Funny bits. I have to say one of my personal favorites is Mr. Braithwaite, played with embellished veracity by Robert Pierce. Starting off as a rehearsal pianist, the audience has no idea what is about to happen. Once the accompanist shackles are lifted, Pierce turns in a dance performance during “Born to Boogie” that is a combination of an exploding gay car bomb, and Bob Fosse on top of a ballet bar. And the best part is that Pierce is a fierce dancer. Bravo and HILARIOUS.
Brittni Shambaugh Addison provides heartbreaking vocals and a beautiful presence as Billy’s Dead Mum. Creating a bond that is crucial to the story. Michael Hinton brings his ballet chops into play and halves a beautiful and powerful pas de deux as Older Billy. His line and fluid movement is captivating during the number. Marcus Martin as Big Davey lends his dynamic stage presence to help lead the miners in a rousing voice. Amiee Collier not only portrays the Clipboard Woman, she IS the Clipboard Woman.
Now we move to the two youngest principle performers in the show. My hat is off to Maurice Kimball IV, who plays Michael. In the story, Michael is Billy’s friend who is gay, and has a crush on Billy. As an actor, Kimball is fearless. Playing a gay character is challenging for anyone, but as a younger actor, probably represents a family decision as well. With that said, Kimball dances and sings his face off. He does a great job entertaining us, and executes a very nuanced performance during an emotional scene that involves revealing his true feelings towards Billy.
At the center of this musical firestorm is Seth Judice as Billy. This is not a role for the faint of heart, nor a person who doesn’t have the physicality to handle the challenges that the role demands. When you think of Broadway, there were 4 Matilda’s that handled that title role, and 3 Billy Elliots were on hand for the Great White Way. At Beck, there is one to handle the entire run. So it is obvious that Superman is not the only one made of steel. In the midst of the incredibly strong character actors around him, it is a challenge to find the level that is needed to match his surrounding actors, however, Judice holds his own. For myself, I found myself getting emotional in Act II quite a bit. If Judice didn’t do his job, I would not have had tears streaming down my face.He did do his job. His dancing was athletic, courageous, and fearless. The moment where Billy first executes a sweeping display of ballet which ends in a classic ballet pose in front of Mrs. Wilkinson, takes your breathe away. And if I ever did an aerial the way this kid can, I think I would literally bring the house down.
Major shout out to the Ballet Corps: Katie Arendt, Kaia Atzberger, Edie Barcelona, Anna Clawson, Aubrey Kocis, Keira Leland, Carolina Manfredi, Olivia Martinez, and Alessandra Rovito. Beautiful work.
The Adult Ensemble fills out the production nicely with some taking over some roles as well. Brittni Shambaugh (Dead Mum), Amiee Collier (Clipboard Woman), DeLee Cooper (Lesley), Danny DiMarino, Dylan Freeman, Greg Good, Michael Hinton (Older Billy), Devon Jordan, Robert Pierce (Mr. Braithwaite), Zachery M. Pytel ( Mr. Wilkinson), Zac Roetter, Will Sanborn, Gabi Shook, Carleigh Spence, and Joe Virgo.
Understudies: for Billy – Maurice Kimball IV, for Michael – Caleb Kocis, for Debbie: Anna Clawson
Artistic Director/Director Scott Spence, Musical Director Larry Goodpaster, and Choreographer Martin Cespedes** once again complete the Beck Center artistic triumphant. Spence brings together a great cast, and a vibrant ensemble. Goodpaster provides music and orchestra that sounds beautiful and balanced. Cespedes did a great job of matching choreography to the abilities of the cast and making it look great. The Ballet corps and Billy were fiercely on point. (See what I did there?)
Production Staff: Stage Manager Diana D’Alessandro called a great show. Assistant Stage Managers: Hayley Baran, Jenna Fink, Andrew Gluvna. Technical Director: Aaron Benson, Lighting Designer: Benjamin Gantose, Costume Design: Aimee Kluber, Sound Designer: Carlton Guc, Flying Effects: ZFX, Inc.
Overall, this is a darker show that the audience might expect. Act I starts slow, but that is scripted films that are shown to set the time and place. I think audiences might be surprised that this isn’t a brightly lit extravaganza, but a tale set more in reality. Not everyone is perfect, not everyone is straight, and not every decision is easy. Act II delivers the emotional moments for me. I wasn’t blown away by this production, but I left with tremendous respect for the endeavor.
One last thought. During “Express Yourself”, a singing and dancing duet involving Kimball and Judice, I couldn’t help thinking about how powerful the message is in the song. It is a song about finding the strength inside to love yourself enough to be who you are, and also, a song about compassion that people who are different can get along. We can express ourselves, be different, but find a common ground. During our trying time in our country and world, what a more powerful way to communicate that message then through two 12 years olds, singing and dancing and telling the world to get over yourselves.
*Actor appears courtesy of the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), + denotes Equity Membership Candidate, **Member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers.
July 8 – August 14
$12-$31 Reserved Seating
Beck Center For The Arts
17801 Detroit Avenue
Lakewood, Ohio 44107