A movie-turned-musical about a young North of England boy who wants to dance ballet, set against the backdrop of a real-life coal strike, might not sound the likeliest of hits. Yet the 2000 movie Billy Elliot and the 2005 musical inspired by the same have both turned out to be highly successful.
Now young Billy, his fractured family and his mates are the focus of a very ambitious production at Venice Theatre, an area premiere for the show, a 30-plus cast offering that places huge demands on many of its members, along with its backstage crew. It’s not an unqualified success, by any means, but there are certainly moments that entertain and uplift.
Billy (Carson Maschmeier the night I attended the show; he alternates the role with Patrick Higgins) is 11, the motherless son of a miner (Matthew Ryder) who’s about to go out on strike with his other son, Tony (Patrick Tancey) during the Thatcher era of union crushing. He’s supposed to use his father’s hard-earned money for boxing lessons, but one day he accidentally happens upon a ballet class held in the same room by a Mrs. Wilkinson (Laura Bissell), who can barely stand teaching the mostly untalented girls who attend, including her own daughter (Bridget Carly Marsh). Billy’s something else, though, even if he doesn’t know it yet, and when Wilkinson spots the diamond in the rough lurking in Billy’s gangling form, she undertakes to prepare him for an audition at the prestigious Royal Ballet School in London.
Naturally, that doesn’t sit too well at first with his father or his miner buddies. But Billy can count on support, of sorts, from his friend Michael (Judah Woomert), who’s got an unusual avocation of his own when it comes to wearing dresses. Can Billy overcome opposition, his own self-doubts, and his lingering sadness about the loss of his mother (Alana Opie) to forge a new life for himself away from the mines?
If you don’t know the answer to that, you haven’t seen many movies or musicals, but no matter. The show’s score, by Elton John with book and lyrics by Lee Hall, presents some worthwhile numbers, from the opening “The Stars Look Down” to “Solidarity,” which places the miners, the cops enforcing Thatcher’s policies, and the young ballerinas all together onstage to Act II’s fun, more biting “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher.” Although on some ensemble numbers it can be hard to discern lyrics, and singers occasionally feel out of step with the orchestra (led by Rebecca Heintz), Bissell and Peg Harvey (as Billy’s loopy grandma) deliver some engaging renditions, as does Ryder on a more traditional, yet highly personal, folk song.
But choreographer-director Thomas Dewayne Barrett sometimes has a struggle on his hands to effectively marshal such a large cast around the stage, especially considering the range of dance skills available to him. Movement can feel that it’s there just for the sake of movement, rather than clear purpose, and while some comic exaggeration is necessary for say, the hapless dance class, when overdone it distracts from the main storyline.
As Billy, 13-year-old Maschmeier has a huge task, required to sing (in a Northern England accent, to boot), act, and dance in not just ballet style but tap as well. When it comes to the ballet performances, he’s not always precise (and I’m not talking about early on, where the character is brand-new to the ballet world). His best moments, dancewise, come when he’s paired with an older version of himself (Chaz Glunk) in an excerpt from “Swan Lake” that literally has him soaring above the stage. That scene provides the magic that doesn’t always come through in other dance routines.
Overall, Venice Theatre deserves credit for tackling such a challenging piece, and its devoted audience members will no doubt find much to applaud. Billy Elliot The musical continues through Dec. 4; for tickets call 488-1115 or go to venicestage.com.