Theatre Calgary’s Billy Elliot the Musical resonates

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Theatre Calgary’s production of Billy Elliot the Musical could not come at a better time. The musical centers around the themes of fighting for what you believe in and being open to accepting, and even celebrating differences.

This production is the same story as the Broadway musical, with book and lyrics by Lee Hall and music by Elton John. Direction for this production is by Theatre Calgary’s artistic director Stafford Arima. There is a definite local spin on this musical and that’s part of what makes it engaging. Former Alberta Ballet dancer Yukichi Hattori choreographs the movement on stage and the cast is all local.

The musical is set in 1984 in Easington, England, during the minor’s strike. The play opens at the Elliot house, Jackie (Dennis Robert Dubbin) appears in a pink apron, yelling for his younger son Billy (Rhett Udsen) to come down to eat breakfast, and discusses the strike with his other son Tony (Alex Smith). Grandma Elliot (Kathryn Kerbes) remarks that things are not the same since Billy’s mom (Michelle Rawlings) died and the audience can see the struggle in the house without the mom as the anchor.

Billy goes to boxing practice hosted by George (Kevin Corey) where he reluctantly practices against his friend Michael (Marc-Emile Fallu). Billy needs to give the keys to the studio to ballet dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (Caitlynne Medrek) and winds up joining the class.

It turns out that Billy has tremendous talent and Mrs. Wilkinson thinks that he should try out for the Royal Ballet School in London. But when Jackie finds out that Billy has been taking ballet classes instead of boxing classes, he bans Billy from dancing.

The ensemble have tremendous singing voices and you can see Hattori’s choreography highlighted on stage. The sharp movement and clean lines really stand out, brought to focus by Alan Brodie’s lighting design.

The production’s serious moments are broken up by comedy mostly provided by the brilliant Fallu as Michael and Joel Schaefer as Mr. Braithwaite, the piano player for Mrs. Wilkinson. Siena Yee as ballet dancing Susan is also very comedic. Arima’s decision to have larger than life drag queens dance with the boys in the wardrobe scene is a nice touch.

The quiet serious moments are punctuated by Scott Reid’s beautiful projection design and the live music also punches up the emotions.

Udsen is talented as Billy Elliot and his dance technique is refined. Fallu steals the show though, with his movement and his completely lovable portrayal as Michael. Medrek is strong as the primary female driver in the musical and is also a talented dancer.

Billy Elliot the Musical has the potential to come off as contrived if the audience cannot buy into the characters. Arima strikes the balance in his direction between the light and the dark and captures the central theme: dare to be yourself. The musical also focuses on accepting and celebrating the differences between us. And we could use a little more of that nowadays.

Billy Elliot the Musical runs at Theatre Calgary until May 12, and is already 75% sold out. Tickets and more information is available online.

Photo Credit: Trudie Lee

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