Till the last one closed in 2015, Britain’s coal mines defined a culture. “The Pits” provided a brutal, dangerous and filthy livelihood for working class Britons. To glimpse its darkness, enter the Ruth Page Center for the Arts – Porchlight Music Theatre’s new home – and see BILLY ELLIOT. Towering, grime-covered windows line the back of the stage. It’s the right setting for this unlikely story of a dancer’s coming of age.
BILLY ELLIOT the musical derives from BILLY ELLIOT the 2000 movie in which a striking coal miner’s son goes to a local gym for a boxing lesson and ends up in a life-altering ballet class. With music by Elton John and book and lyrics by the movie’s screenwriter Lee Hall, the musical version opened in London in 2005, made landfall on Broadway in 2008 and came through town via Broadway in Chicago in 2010.
PORCHLIGHT MUSIC THEATRE immerses the viewer
Once again, Porchlight’s intimate interpretation of a big musical immerses the viewer far more deeply than a commercial tour. BILLY ELLIOT in the hands of director Brenda Didier is both emotionally rich and theatrically satisfying. When 12-year-old Billy tells Royal Ballet School examiners that dancing makes him feel “electric,” we’re right with him. The musical carries its own charge and Porchlight’s fine staging compounds it. Lincoln Seymour, who alternates with Jacob Kaiser as Billy, can not only dance, sing and act, he can also pronounce the word “electricity” with more regional accuracy than many adult actors.
Chicago musical theater regulars such as Sean Fortunato as Billy’s widowed father and Iris Lieberman as Billy’s semi-senile grandmother are in glorious form. Same for the ensemble -- from the youngsters who carve specific characters for themselves in a provincial ballet class to a seasoned performer like Jeff Bouthiette who makes every moment on stage count.
As the ballet teacher Mrs. Wilkinson, Shanesia Davis gives us a woman with no illusions about her pathetic class but with enough confidence in Billy’s talent to face down his resistant father and older brother. She does not fill the hole left by his mother’s death with maternal warmth; instead she challenges him to leap from a doomed life in the pits.
BILLY ELLIOT’s miners stand by their own
The story occurs during the 1984-85 strike that ended in a victory for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and marked the eventual demise of British mining. President Trump’s recent use of U.S. coal miners as Make-America-Great-Again symbols revives the question that BILLY ELLIOT so poignantly raises: When politics and economies shift, how can ordinary laborers protect themselves?
Porchlight’s BILLY ELLIOT allows us to feel for these people. During the Northern England town’s annual Christmas party, a massive puppet of Thatcher appears above a makeshift curtain, conveying just how small the miners’ power is compared to the enormity of their outrage. Their beleaguered community sticks together. Tough blokes don't go in for ballet, but when it looks like Billy will miss his Royal Ballet School audition, the crusty miners drop coins into a hardhat to send him to London. He is, after all, one of their own.
Of course, kids who defy profound cultural and gender norms don’t always meet with Billy Elliot’s success. It takes a strong dose of wish fulfillment to buy into the townspeople’s conversion from ridiculing the boy to investing in his aspirations. But we do.
BILLY ELLIOT shines amid the gloom
We cheer Billy's journey from “Shine” – the early number where Mrs. Wilkinson prods her motley class of little girls – to the soaring dance number that literally takes him aloft. BILLY ELLIOT convinces us that artistic talent will overcome the greatest of obstacles. If that isn’t optimistic enough, Porchlight’s production ends with an elaborate tutu-filled curtain call that’s worth the price of admission -- even without the magnificent two and a half hours that preceded it.
Now through December 31
Thursdays at 7:30 PM
Fridays at 8 PM
Saturdays at 4 & 8 PM
Sundays at 2 PM
Dates & performance times vary – check calendar
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning, Emmy-nominated playwright, journalist and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre.