Farmer's Branch — Billy Elliot the Musical, based on the 2000 Universal Pictures/Studio Canal film Billy Elliot about a little boy struggling to survive during a difficult economic period in England, is actually far more than that. Writer Lee Hall tells a story of the impact of political divisions on the everyman, and how those can linger for generations and inform future events. In school, Hall was taught that art and politics are intertwined, so he does not see a separation. He collaborated with composer Elton John to retell the film story through a musical.
The setting is Durham County, England which is the birthplace of the Miners’ Union. It is during the bloody 1984-85 Miners’ Strike which came very close to becoming a civil war. According to Hall, who was born into a working class family, the devastation of that period has had lingering effects on the region. By the time this musical had been written almost all of the mines in England had been shut.
When the Firehouse Theatre in Farmer’s Branch—a community theater with big ambitions—added it to its 2016 season, the producers could not possibly have known that this production would open soon after a major class dispute in Great Britain (Brexit). Through this timely production we can not only hear Billy’s story, but we can also gain some insight into some of the social history that informs Brexit.
The musical, directed by Derek Whitener and with musical direction by Rebecca Lowrey, is about the title character (played by Westin Brown) and his brother Tony (Austin Parker), who live with their Dad (Ben Phillips). Their mother is dead (but that character is played by (Kate Dressler in flashback). Dad and Tony are miners. Billy’s best friend is Michael (Matthew Vinson), an effervescent young boy with a strong sense of self exhibited through his fondness for cross-dressing. Grandma (Judy Keith) lives with the family and is exhibiting signs of dementia, but she is able to tell Billy certain stories about his family. There are two primary extracurricular outlets for kids in town. One is a ballet school that is run by Mrs. Wilkinson (Andi Allen). Mr. Braithwaite (Andrew Friedrich) plays keyboard and accordion for Mrs. Wilkinson’s dance classes. Mrs. Wilkinson’s daughter, Debbie (Sydney Noelle Pitts) has a crush on Billy. The other training outlet for kids is a boxing school run by George (Kris Allen). Billy does not like boxing and is himself surprised to discover that he has an affinity for dance.
Lee Hall attended Comprehensive School, which in England is a school with what the U.S. describes as open enrollment, not determined by academic achievement or family income. He has spoken of how such a school considered studies in Shakespeare too difficult for some of its students. A boy engaged in academic or artistic pursuits was viewed as “the other.”
It was through local music and theater groups that students like him (and Billy) had access to the arts. Hall wanted to tell this story so he does so through Billy and Michael. Michael reflects an image in Hall’s mind a young boy running around the streets in a tutu. Michael is Billy’s one true friend.
Derek Whitener has assembled an enthusiastic cast whose members complement each other. Westin Brown and Matthew Vinson turn in some really nice work as Billy and Michael. They balance each other well in terms of energy, and stage personality. Vinson is adorably charismatic as Michael while Brown brings the quietude and uncertainty of Billy. Their duet, “Expressing Yourself” (choreographed by Brandon Harvey) is big fun.
The game changer for Billy was his dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson. In a story filled with boxing classes, street fights and violence, it is actually from his dance teacher that Billy learns courage. This role is a perfect fit for Andi Allen and she renders a strong performance throughout. She easily handles her big number, “Shine.” Allen becomes the dance teacher with more pliés in her past than her present, but with a sharp eye for talent, and buried underneath the crusty exterior, a desire to encourage students to dream big.
Austin Parker makes me want to see more of him onstage. He has controlled intensity as Tony and delivers really good work in this production. The heat of the miners’ struggle is communicated through Tony so achieving a high boil is important to the characterization.
Ben Phillips is solid as Dad. He plays the father as a conflicted soul, not a tortured one. Phillips has a pleasant singing voice, lyrical in “Deep Into the Ground” and dramatic in the duet with Parker in “He Could Be a Star.” One area of concern is his fight scene with Tony (choreographed by Jason Leyva). It needs work.
A standout scene is “The Letter,” a trio of Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy and Dead Mum. The scene is well-acted and nicely sung. Another favorite is “Grandma’s Song” with Judy Keith. It is obviously written as a monologue, and Keith sings it that way. The song ends without bravado, with Keith’s face as the button.
For all of the seriousness of the context of this story, there is also humor and fun. Mr. Braithwaite is a hoot and breaks out in “Born to Boogie” (choreographed by Amy Cave). Friedrich is funny without upstaging. Just his presence is enough.
This is a lot of musical for this theater so space utilization and sound balance are critical to making the production work. Lowrey, also the piano conductor and keyboardist, is leading a seven-piece ensemble of bass, drums, guitar, trumpet, horn, and two winds that double (flute, clarinet, and soprano, tenor and alto saxophones.) The musicians are located in a pretty tight rectangular area above the stage with the brass on the outside/audience side.
Over all, the musicians gel, particularly on the production numbers. However, on Friday night some entrances were sketchy which made numbers sound under-rehearsed. In the opening number, the vocals and instrumentalists did not sync until 16 bars in. That’s noticeable.
There are sound balance issues, too. During the opening number, the vocals compete with the instruments, especially the brass. It’s not that the brass players play too loudly—they don’t. But given that they are on the audience side of that rectangular space, a balance adjustment is needed; that would help the singers.
Kevin Brown has accomplished a small miracle through the set design. Every inch of space has been assigned such that it is functional, uncluttered and practical. He has appropriated the crossover and found clever ways to use it as a playing area. The most dramatic instance is the descent into the mines scene, “Once We Were Kings,” which is effected not just through staging and set design but also with lighting (Scott Davis). Some of the stage left exit transitions were in full view of the center-right audience which was partly because the curtain was opened too wide.
Of note for movement are Ryan C. Machen as Older Billy in “Swan Lake” (choreographed by Eddie Floresco), and Rodney Morris as Big Davey. Billy’s solo, “Electricity” is choreographed by Michael Anthony Sylvester.
This is a dance heavy show and interestingly, there are a total of eight choreographers, which results in the lack of one cohesive voice. On the other hand, perhaps this atypical dance style potpourri was the intent for such an eclectic story. Choreographers not already mentioned above: Larry Borero (“Shine/Solidarity”), Beth Lipton (“Grandma’s Song”), Christina Kudlicki Hoth (“Angry Dance”), and Linda Kay Leonard (“Finale”), which is terrific.
Least successful is “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher,” which extends into the audience and is like being at a one-room amusement park surrounded by people who have consumed too much sugar.
Billy Elliot the Musical tells conflicting stories at the same time with action occurring in different locations and involving at least 30 people that often move around in clusters. There are fight scenes and ballet, tender moments, and moments of explosive anger. Whitener has organized an enjoyable production, one that remains true to the script, with a cast that is enthusiastically committed to sharing it with the audience.