Chicago Theatre Review
Billy Elliot – Drury Lane Oakbrook
Although most of Chicago may have already seen this inspiring, heartfelt musical, either on Broadway or in the 2010 extended Chicago production, they won’t have seen a production like this. Drury Lane has topped itself with this stellar entry. Happily, the talented and insightful Rachel Rockwell is at the helm as both director and choreographer. This is the kind of show in which she particularly excels: character-driven family musicals, especially those starring young actors, that feature challenging choreography and inspiring storylines. The result is a brilliant production that’s warmhearted, honest and unflinching, while still evoking laughter, tears and defending the fierce determination for an individual’s dreams.
For anyone unfamiliar with the journey this story has taken, “Billy Elliot” began life as a 2000 English film. Based upon A.J. Cronin’s The Stars Look Down, it tells of a motherless boy from a working class background who discovers, purely by accident, that he was born with a gift for ballet. Set during the 1984-85 UK miners’ strike in Northeast England, amidst Maggie Thatcher’s turbulent reign as Britain’s Iron Lady Prime Minister, Billy and his family struggle to survive. His father and brother slave away down in the mines, barely scraping together enough to make ends meet. The boy attends school, helps care for his elderly, often befuddled grandmother and, once a week, pays for boxing lessons at the local hall. Then he wanders into the abrasive Mrs. Wilkinson’s ballet class, and a light begins to shine. Billy suddenly discovers a hidden talent and his unknown passion for dance.
The story of how this young boy and his teacher convince his family and community that Billy was born to dance is the basis for this multiple Tony Award-winning musical. The theatrical musical version features a book and lyrics by Lee Hall and a score by Sir Elton John. It was a Broadway hit and has toured around the world, setting up professional productions in virtually every country. Now, Drury Lane, one of Chicago’s finest regional theatres, known for its wonderful musical productions, has surpassed itself giving the area yet another opportunity to savor this gorgeous story about pursuing your dream in spite of insurmountable odds.
Rachel Rockwell has put her own stamp on this show, focusing more on the sad young boy who, if not for his sudden discovery and immersion in art, would eventually end up like his father and brother, toiling in the mines for substandard wages. Young Nicholas Dantes (who shares the title role at alternate performances with Kyle Halford) has the perfect melancholy, downtrodden look of a young boy who’s still mourning the loss of his mother and doesn’t see any way out of his oppressive existence. He lives in an industrial town that may soon see everyone out of work forever. However, when the talented young Mr. Dantes smiles, particularly whenever he’s soaring in dance or playing with his friend Michael, it’s filled with honesty, and the stage lights up brighter than any miner’s lamp. A terrific singer and dancer, young Mr. Dantes is more a youngster who shows promise as a dancer than an actual accomplished ballet star. Ms. Rockwell’s choreography features more tap than ballet, but all of the choreography is accomplished, heartfelt and meaningful within the context of the story.
Susie McMonagle, who played both female leading roles in the recent National Tour, is excellent as the brusque, no-nonsense Mrs. Wilkinson. She masks the care and love for her students and daughter behind a sailor’s mouth, a gruff demeanor and the determination to encourage artistic expression in those around her. When Ms. McMonagle sings, she’s magical; when she dances, it’s from the gut. Matched with the feisty Bret Tuomi as her accompanist Mr. Braithwaite, the two team up with Mr. Dantes to present a moving, very funny “Born to Boogie.” Ms. McMonagle’s hilarious number, “Shine,” is a composite of ballet exercises that not only show off this talented actress’ wry sense of humor but focuses the comedy on her “spastic starfish” of a little girls’ corps de ballet.
Ron Rains, the respected, multitalented Chicago actor is strong and driven, torn and conflicted as Dad. Longtime prejudices about poufs who dance are mixed with his desire to do what’s best for Billy. He finally comes to realize, thanks to Mrs. Wilkinson’s lecturing and watching his son’s passion for the art, that this could be a way for Billy to escape the humdrum life that he’s always known. Mr. Rains’ “Deep Into the Ground” is one of the show’s highlights, both stirring and heartfelt. Liam Quealy is terrific as Tony, Billy’s older brother who’s determined to make his mark as one of the striking miners. He’s willing to fight for his community, his family and ultimately his little brother. Although not given as much of an opportunity to show off his considerable singing and dancing talents, this might be Mr. Quealy’s finest piece of work, to date. Brianna Borger brings a beautiful, clear soprano to Mum, brilliantly displayed in “Dear Billy;” and Maureen Gallagher is both hilarious and heartrending as Billy’s Grandma. Her number, “We’d Go Dancing,” is poignant and beautifully danced by Rhett Guter (equally impressive as Billy’s older self). Michael Harp is self-assured, charismatic and absolutely delightful as Billy’s friend, Michael. The two boys, along with members of this fantastic ensemble, let it all rip in a very funny, high-spirited “Expressing Yourself.”
This is a gritty, exciting and joyously inspiring production. It’s a celebration, in every way, of the strength we all harbor deep inside. This production, perhaps more than any of its predecessors, shows the true need for art in our often mundane lives. Ms. Rockwell and her astoundingly talented cast, particularly her well-cast, authentic-looking ensemble, bring “Electricity” to the Drury Lane stage and rejoice in what it means to follow one’s dreams and live the life that’s right for each individual.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 10-June 7 by the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 630-530-0111, TicketMaster at 800-745-3000 or by going to www.drurylane.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.