Something absolutely wonderful can happen when a hit musical is finally liberated from its original Broadway incarnation — no matter how beguiling the original might have been.
As proof you need only witness the astonishingly beautiful, emotionally devastating production that opened Thursday night at the Drury Lane Theatre, where director-choreographer Rachel Rockwell has grabbed hold of Elton John and Lee Hall’s “Billy Elliot” and not only generated a surge of electricity palpable throughout the audience, but probed the very deepest recesses of the show’s enormous heart.
Yes, this show was a natural for Rockwell, who possesses a unique gift for working with children (and “Billy Elliot” puts an enormous weight on tiny shoulders), who began her career as a dancer-choreographer (this show is an ode to the way dance, and all the arts, can be a life-changing force), and who has a flair for making historical references in a musical (in this case, the traumatic British miners’ strike of the mid-1980s, during the era of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) come to vivid life. And her production, the first regional edition of the musical — which features an altogether remarkable cast led by 14-year old Nicholas Dantes, an actor, dancer and singer whose performance is shattering on many levels — should now become the standard by which all future versions are measured.
When: Through June 7
Where: Drury Lane Theatre,
100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
Tickets: $45 – $60
Info: (630) 530-0111;
Run time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission
To be sure, “Billy Elliot” — with its alternately earthy and poetic book by Hall, and its soaring score by “Sir Elton” — supplies a supremely rich vein of material to work with, and music director Roberta Duchak (and the fine orchestra led by Colin Welford) pay full honors to it. But what Rockwell and her actors do so brilliantly is to fully evoke the desperate, angry, but heart-on-the-sleeve world of the miners, who sense they are about to become dinosaurs, and to capture their anxious hopes for Billy, whose surprising natural gift for dance is fueled by his antipathy to the brutal world all around him, and by the hope that something better, if almost entirely alien, might save him.
About Dantes, who has studied with dancers from the Joffrey Ballet and Chicago Tap Theatre, among others: He is bean-pole thin, with legs you can almost feel are still growing, and he has a gentle face that suggests this is a deep well of a soul who takes everything in, guards against giving too much away, but then, in sudden bursts of movement, song or speech reveals all that is going on inside. Everything he does is sublimely natural and unaffected.
It is Billy’s hard-as-nails but insightful dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson (Susie McMonagle in searing form as a woman with total insight), who observes: While some dancers are all about technique, others are propelled to move out of the impulse to express something. It is the latter impulse that drives Billy, and Dantes captures that quality with an almost unbearable poignancy. You feel it in every scene — whether he is taking his first gawky steps amid a gaggle of little girls in tutus, or flying high on a wire, or raging against a wall of police riot shields, or suddenly exploding at his Dad (a true storm of a performance by Ron E. Rains), or probing his Grandma (an enchanting turn by Maureen Gallagher), or communing with the ghost of his beloved Mum (the touchingly restrained Brianna Borger), or tapping up a storm with his cross-dressing pal, Michael (Michael Harp), or counting the money that might take him to London for his audition at the The Royal Ballet School. There is not a single moment that is not perfectly real, whether he is standing shyly in the corner at a Christmas panto wearing felt reindeer antlers, or mimicking his dad folding the clothes he is packing in his suitcase.
The show biz element of this musical is never lost, but it emerges fully from the gritty world of the story, and Rockwell sees to it that every supporting character brings a third dimension to his or her portrayal — whether it’s Terry Hamilton as Billy’s boxing coach; Bret Tuomi as the dance studio accompanist; Peyton Shaffer as Mrs. Wilkinsin’s precocious daughter; Fred Zimmerman as an avuncular burly miner, or tiny Zachary Uzarraga, who is dressed up like a mini-Thatcher sipping tea in the panto. The show (with an aptly rusted look by way of Kevin Depinet’s sets) is fully alive in the most organic way. And a final sequence in the show, in which Billy watches the miners lowered down a shaft while he heads off into the light, is a stunner.
This production, a major achievement for all involved, will dance straight into the hardest of hearts.
[Note: Kyle Halford, Dantes’ alternate as Billy, took an opening night bow with the cast — one of lovely enduring traditions of this show that pays homage to the boys who have labored so hard to meet its many challenges.]