By Beki Pineda
BILLY ELLIOT. Book and lyrics by Lee Hall; music by Elton John; directed by Bernie Cardell. Produced by the Vintage Theatre Company (1468 Dayton St., Aurora) through March 19. Tickets available at 303-856-7830 or www.vintagetheatre.org.
I am always amazed at the guts of the Vintage Theatre artistic management in their determination to take HUGE shows and reveal the innate intimacy at the heart of the script. They do not diminish the story by diminishing the scope of the production; they enhance it by making it less about size and more about humanity. MISS SAIGON became the love story between one confused man and his love and less about helicopters and cars on stage. SUNSET BOULEVARD became a tango between two eccentric characters and the people who loved them rather than about Hollywood. Now, BILLY ELLIOT has become about how one community learns to support one of their own, rather than about bedrooms that rise out of the middle of the stage. Each production was stronger for the emphasis put on human values rather than production values—although each was also strongly and simply presented.
For those of you who haven’t seen either the movie or a stage version of this story, Billy is a kid growing up in the north of England against a background of coal miners who hate Maggie Thatcher for her attempts to break the unions. He wanders into a ballet class by accident and discovers that he has an affinity for it. Encouraged by his teacher but shamed by his father and brother, he stands up for himself to audition for the Royal Ballet Academy. But it’s about more than that. It’s about recovering from the death of the most important person in your life; it’s about men fighting for survival; it’s about a community coming together to support one of their own; it’s about little boys “Expressing Yourself”; and it’s an homage to friendship and love of family, whatever form they take.
Obviously the role of Billy is crucial. It has to be a young boy of a certain age who can dance ballet, tap and modern; who can sing both ballads and upbeat songs; who can successfully grow from bewilderment and sarcasm into the beginnings of maturity. Kaden Hinkle brings all of this to the role and then some. His sweet scenes with his deceased mum, who comes back to guide him in troubled times, are heartbreaking. His rapport with his grandmother, his fear of his father, his confusion over finding himself in a ballet class—and even more, loving it—are delightful. He walks through the world with a permanently bewildered look on his face as life happens to him. When he finally learns to stand up for himself, the whole audience’s hearts rise up and cheer.
There are other standout performances in this production. Andy Anderson as Billy’s father brings a humanity as well as believable anger to the part. He is losing control of his family; he misses his beloved wife; there is no place in his life for dancing . . . yet he remains strong and makes the tough decisions necessary for his son. Vintage regular Deb Persoff plays Billy’s Grandma with spunk and humor. She stops the show with her song about the trouble she got into because her husband was a good dancer (but then “we were sober.”) Becca Fletcher is luminous as the spirit of Billy’s Mum, bringing genuine motherly emotion to her scenes with him. She makes it easy to see why the whole family has suffered in her absence. Adrianne Hampton presents herself as a jaded dance instructor, but it’s obvious from her participation in various numbers and in the way she moves that she enjoys the movement and the spirit of dance. She becomes the second woman in Billy’s life to believe in him. Benji Dienstfrey takes on the humorous role of Michael, Billy’s best friend, who finds nothing at all unusual about dressing up in his mum’s clothes: “Me dad does it all the time.”
In a couple of small parts that could have gone unnoticed except for what director Cardell and choreographer Gina Eslinger decided to do with them, both Kris Graves as the ballet-class accompanist and participant and Eddie Schumacher as George, the boxing instructor and smart-mouth friend of the family, add giant touches of humor to the proceedings. Special mention must be given, as well, Will Treat as the older Billy in a beautiful fantasy scene that allows the young Billy to dance with who he will become in the future. It gives one surety that dreams do come true.
On the simplest of sets, designed by Chris Waller, walls open up to become kitchens, set pieces roll off and on smoothly, and the demands of the show are met with a modicum of confusion. The lighting design by Steve Tangedal enhances the dance numbers and splits the stage when needed to allow for the silent placement or removal of set pieces. There are a number of choreographic problems in this show, especially on a small stage, but choreographers Eslinger and Andrew Bates made everything work. In “Solidarity,” the British cops are fighting with the coal miners while their children from the ballet class dance between their skirmishes. In less capable hands, this could have been a mess. Instead, the dance emphasizes the solidarity of the family connections and class distinctions while simultaneously highlighting the animosity between the warring factions. Blake Nawa’a as Musical Director and Tom Quinn as Sound Designer achieve the perfect balance between vocal and instrumental music.
Another deeply touching production from the Vintage Theatre and artistic director Bernie Cardell. The one to see this spring!!
WOW factor: 9.5