When the Elton John-Lee Hall musical “Billy Elliot” first arrived on a London stage in 2005, its director, Stephen Daldry, noted that rarely has such a monumental weight been placed on such tiny shoulders. He was referring, of course, to the show’s title character, an 11-year-old boy who discovers his passion for ballet amidst the rage and pain of macho men facing a life-altering shutdown of coal mines in Northern England during the Margaret Thatcher era of the mid-1980s. And not only must the lad playing Billy be able to act, dance and sing with formidable skill, but he must make you fall in love with his true grit, his remarkable awakening, and the mixture of elation and sadness that drives every moment of his young life.
When: Through Nov. 26
Where: Porchlight Music Theatre at Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $33 – $60
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
In Lincoln Seymour, the lean, sad-eyed, beautifully expressive 14-year-old who stars in Porchlight Music Theatre’s fervent, heartrending, tears-and-laughter-inducing new production of the show, director Brenda Didier has found a rare and altogether remarkable talent. Seymour is so natural, and at the same time so gifted, that when one of the adults in the musical explains that dance can be a calculated technical art, or something that emerges from the person like breath itself, it sounds as if the line were added just to pay tribute to him. (In fact, it is in the script.)
But he is not alone here, for in her fierce yet immensely exuberant production, Didier has gathered a phenomenal cast of more than 30 performers, including 17 kids (one of whom, Jacob Kaiser, will alternate with Seymour). And she has conjured a communal spirit that syncs perfectly with the “Billy Elliot” story, and the show’s beguiling score — a winning pastiche of ballads, music hall razzmatazz (including a fine new twist on the Christmas panto number), and protest, with “Electricity,” Billy’s extraordinary explanation of why he loves to dance, perhaps the most underrated of Broadway musical show-stoppers.
Doing full justice to that score is music director/pianist/conductor Linda Madonia and her superb musicians, who are hidden from view behind set designer Christopher Rhoton’s ideally bleak industrial set.
The story, based on the hit 2000 film, hardly needs recounting at this point. Suffice it to say, amid all the chaos of a troubled family and a community torn apart by a strike called to counter the closing of coal mines that are its lifeblood, Billy stumbles into the ballet class held at the same after-school center where he has been sent to take boxing lessons. And while at first he seems like just another hopeless case, the embittered, tough-as-nails dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (a starry turn by the luminous, clarion-voiced Shanesia Davis) spots a hidden talent in him, and tries to counter the prevailing prejudice against ballet and the town’s abiding sense of failure.
Every supporting character (including a pack of super-sized macho miners and cops) has been ideally cast. And there are immensely winning turns by Billy’s addled but loving Grandma (the sublime Iris Lieberman, whose young double is beautifully danced by Jenny McPherson); his widowed Dad (Sean Fortunato, taut with grief, worry and anger); his ghostly, adoring Mum (a lovely portrayal by Nicole Cready); his volatile older brother, Tony (a terrific turn by Adam Fane); his cross-dressing little friend, Michael (a hilarious turn by Peyton Owen); and the ballet accompanist Mr. Braithwaite (Tommy Novak is a hoot).
But back to Seymour, whose authenticity, quiet intensity and grace are glorious to behold, whether he is learning to pirouette, blazing through Billy’s “Angry Dance,” or soaring in an aerial sequence set to “Swan Lake.” A bravura turn.
Note: “Billy Elliot” marks Porchlight’s move from the West Belmont area to the Gold Coast, where it is now a resident company of the Ruth Page Center for the Arts. On opening night, artistic director Michael Weber named the illustrious companies — Chicago Shakespeare, Lookingglass, Chicago Children’s Theatre — who previously occupied the stage. Porchlight is every bit a worthy successor.