‘Billy Elliot’ laudable but lacks polish

Aside from a few missteps, Cincinnati Music Theatre's production maintains the musical's warmth and heart.

Nov 9, 2016 at 1:10 pm

click to enlarge The spirited cast of Cincinnati Music Theatre’s Billy Elliot - Photo: Mark D. Motz for Cincinnati Music Theatre
Photo: Mark D. Motz for Cincinnati Music Theatre
The spirited cast of Cincinnati Music Theatre’s Billy Elliot
It is 1984 and Billy Elliot’s coal-mining community in northeastern England is on strike. His father is desperately trying to scrape together a life for him after Billy’s mother’s death; Billy’s brother is growing more violent as he works to keep scabs out and the town unified; and Billy himself, coming of age amid hardship and poverty and coal dust, has discovered an undeniable love for — of all things — ballet.

This is the story behind Billy Elliot The Musical, the current production of Cincinnati Music Theatre at the Aronoff Center’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater. The musical is based on the 2000 film of the same name, with new music by Elton John and book and lyrics by Lee Hall. The show’s 2008 Broadway production earned 10 Tony Awards. 

The role of 11-year-old Billy Elliot asks the world of any young actor tapped to play it. Billy must dance, sing and act — in dialect — through nearly every scene in what becomes, with intermission, a nearly three-hour production. Cincinnati Music Theatre’s Billy is 14-year-old Peanut Edmonson, a sandy-haired triple-threat. Edmonson never quite convinces us that he’s the ballet prodigy the role requires, but his efforts are laudable and the opening-night audience leapt to its collective feet during Edmonson’s curtain call. 

Not every moment is a winner. In a pivotal scene that closes the first act, Billy channels the energy of his personal loss and frustration into movement and rhythm for the first time. Although executed well enough, Edmonson’s “Angry Dance” does not quite hit the mark emotionally. It lacks the expression required to drive home Billy’s metamorphosis as a dancer. However, Edmonson engages greater depth during two misty-eyed duets between Billy and his dearly departed Mum (Sarah Martin Flerlage). Overall, Edmonson is lovable and shares a significant quality with the character of Billy: enormous potential.

Billy Elliot is not all anger and tears. “Shine,” a scene that introduces Billy’s soon-to-be ballet teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (Jen Drake), packs the stage with 10 tween divas eager to please their dance instructor. Though you can tell each of these young actresses has dancing chops, the scene calls for a comical bungling of the moves, which the cast dedicates themselves to with glee. Drake conveys the right blend of a maternal and jaded attitude for Mrs. Wilkinson, and she exhibits the strongest and most effortless voice in the production.

A surprising moment of comic relief is “Grandma’s Song,” wherein Billy’s grandma (Marcie Brooks) shakes off a haze of early dementia to tell Billy about her early years with her late husband. To share the story here would spoil Grandma’s moment, but Brooks keenly balances nostalgia with humor to further sketch out the larger tale of this hardscrabble town. This is also a good time to remind ticket-buyers that Billy Elliot is rated R for language — Billy’s feisty grandma herself helps earn that rating.

Particularly powerful are the scenes when the downtrodden mining families of County Durham, portrayed by the cast of around 40, join their voices in unison. “Solidarity,” perhaps the most hummable tune in the show, serves as exposition about the tight-knit nature of the community and of the miner’s union, repeating lyrics such as, “We all go together when we go.” 

However, the song also demonstrates the forces that make it so difficult for Billy to ultimately leave in pursuit of his ballet career — solidarity means status quo, the family business, not ruffling feathers. The core of Billy Elliot lies not only in what he overcomes, but also in the gradually changing heart of a town that is short on hope. 

Cincinnati Music Theatre’s production lacks some polish: the lighting can be choppy, the set designs are simple, the sound is occasionally muddy as hot mics pick up rustling newspapers and excess breathing. And some fight choreography could be useful. All this aside, this community theater has taken on a wildly ambitious show and maintains the warmth and the heart that has made Billy Elliot successful around the world. 

BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL, produced by Cincinnati Music Theatre at the Aronoff Center, continues through Nov. 12. More info: cincinnatiarts.org.