Story: Poverty is a way of life in northeastern England, where the dirty and dangerous occupation of coal mining has been the main source of income to the locals for centuries. In 1984, though, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has sworn to shut down the government-operated coal industry, threatening to take away the livelihood of 300,000 miners.
While his widowed father, older brother Tony and other miners endure a one-year miners’ strike against the government with little more than faith and solidarity, 11-year-old Billy Elliot accidentally meanders from his weekly boxing lesson into a ballet class in an adjoining community center room.
Quickly, dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson spots a natural gift in Billy and nurtures him above and beyond her other pupils, all girls. She encourages Billy to audition for the Royal Ballet, but the lad resists, discouraged in part by the disdain of his father and brother for such a ‘girlish’ pursuit.
As months go by and the coal strike cripples the town, the townsfolk see in Billy an opportunity to escape their depressing and dying environment and a chance for him to spread his wings and fly away into a richer life.
Highlights: A smash hit in London since its 2005 debut and an awards juggernaut for its Broadway production that ran from 2008 until early 2012, Billy Elliot the Musical is now on stage at The Muny for its first presentation beyond Broadway and the subsequent national tour that ended in 2013, including a 2011 run at The Fox.
Mike Isaacson, artistic director and executive producer of The Muny, and his colleagues once again have utilized The Muny’s resources and its unique place in American theater to entice several members of the Broadway cast and/or touring show to St. Louis for this one-week engagement, including four major performers. Although dragging on for nearly three hours in the Billy Elliot tradition, Muny patrons can revel in the invigorating music, breathtaking choreography and several fine performances that get The Muny’s 2014 season off to an ambitious start.
Other Info: Based on the 2000 film, Billy Elliot the Musical opened in London’s West End in the spring of 2005 and still is running today, having garnered four Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical. Its Broadway production began in late 2008 and collected a record-tying 15 Tony Award nominations, winning a jaw-dropping 10, including Best Musical, Best Book (Lee Hall), Best Direction and Best Choreography, but not Best Score for Sir Elton John. Go figure.
A sobering item in The Muny program notes that the number of people who work in England’s coal mining industry has dropped from 300,000 in 1984, when the strike began, to less than 1,000 today following the Thatcher government’s closure of the mines. That is the desperate setting for Billy Elliot.
The Muny’s production, directed by Washington, Mo. native Steven Minning, features a wonderful performance by 14-year-old Tade Biesinger as Billy. Biesinger has a natural, likable quality that radiates in his impersonation of Billy and a graceful, fluid dancing ability that aptly showcases Billy’s innate abilities.
There’s another fine youthful interpretation by area child actor Michael Harp, who engagingly portrays Billy’s best pal, Michael, who seems to have the gay (‘poof’) tendencies that Billy so determinedly refutes about himself. Add the natural spontaneity of local performer Maria Knasel as Debbie, a fellow dancer with a crush on Billy, and you can enjoy a trio of youthful performances.
There’s very satisfying work, too, by Emily Skinner, a Billy Elliot Broadway veteran who plays dance tutor Mrs. Wilkinson with droll sarcasm and fatigued disappointment about her own fate and that of her neighbors, but with a buoyant optimism about Billy. In the absence of Billy’s late mother, Mrs. Wilkinson provides the tough love and nurturing encouragement to propel the lad to a brighter future, all of which Skinner grandly conveys.
Two other Billy Elliot Broadway veterans, Daniel Oreskes and Patti Perkins, portray Billy’s gruff, working-class father and his vulgar, crass, uneducated grandmother, respectively. Local favorite Ben Nordstrom makes an impressive Muny debut as Billy’s older and bitter brother, Tony, while area veteran Steve Isom is amusingly effective as Billy’s exasperated boxing coach, George.
Maximilien Baud, who played the older Billy in a Tchaikovsky dream dance sequence in the national tour, reprises his role here, and national tour performer Molly Garner portrays Billy’s late mother in the show’s most affecting number, the wistful ballad Dear Billy.
Home-towners Anna Blair and Damien Brett join a legion of veterans of the Billy Elliot national tour in the lively ensemble, which is highlighted in the show’s inspirational opening number, The Stars Look Down, as well as the Les Miserables-inspired Solidarity.
Robert Mark Morgan’s scenic design conveys the look and feel of a tiny and tidy English village, with Tracy Christensen’s costume coordination of Nicky Gillibrand’s original costume design, atmospheric and mood-enhancing lighting by John Lasiter, sound design by Jason Krueger and Rob Denton’s video design showing images of Thatcher and Winston Churchill.
Colin Welford inspires The Muny orchestra with lush, lyrical musical direction, while Alison Levenberg recreates the spirited Peter Darling choreography for The Muny presentation in exhilarating fashion.
Despite all of that, the final number, Company Celebration, is a lame and limp ending, lessening the impact of the much-deserved bows of the cast. And Hall's story of Billy Elliot, just as with the national touring show at The Fox, simply doesn’t resonate with me, although I’m obviously in the minority.
We all can agree, though, that the dancing is sensational and that young Tade Biesinger displays genuine star quality in his title turn as Billy Elliot.
Musical: Billy Elliot the Musical
Company: The Muny
Venue: The Muny in Forest Park
Dates: Through June 22
Tickets: Free to $80; contact 314-534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Eric Woosley and Phillip Hamer