Chicago Theatre Review
Born to Boogie
Billy Elliot – Porchlight Music Theatre
Although most of Chicago has probably already seen this inspiring, heartfelt musical, either on Broadway, in the 2010 extended Chicago production or at one of our fine regional theatres, they won’t have seen a production like this. Artistic Director Michael Weber has outdone himself. Under the empathetic guidance of Director/choreographer Brenda Didier, we see once again why she’s a multiple Jeff Award-winner. Assisted by co-choreographer Craig V. Miller and Musical Director Linda Madonia, who also conducts her talented backstage orchestra, this heartwarming story of one boy’s determination to be himself is the latest stellar entry in Porchlight’s illustrious history of great shows.
This is the kind of show in which Ms. Didier truly excels: character-driven family musicals that offer an inspiring storyline and challenging choreography. Ms Didier’s guidance is gentle, thoughtful, honest and unflinching, while still tapping into its humor and pathos of the piece, defending the main character’s fierce determination to live his dream.
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 boy from a working class background who discovers, purely by accident, that he was born with a gift for dance. Set during the 1984-85 UK miners’ strike in Northeast England, amidst Iron Lady Maggie Thatcher’s turbulent reign as Britain’s 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, reluctantly takes boxing lessons at the local hall. One day he accidentally wanders into the abrasive Mrs. Wilkinson’s ballet class, and a light begins to shine. Billy suddenly discovers his hidden talent and a heretofore unknown passion for dance. The boy learns he was “Born to Boogie.”
The journey of how this young boy and his teacher convince his family and community that Billy was meant to be a professional dancer is the basis for the multiple Tony Award-winning musical. The theatrical version features a book and lyrics by Lee Hall and a score by Sir Elton John. It was originally a hit on Broadway and has toured around the world, setting up professional productions in virtually every country. Now, Porchlight, one of Chicago’s finest theatres, known for its wonderful musical productions, has surpassed itself in giving the area yet another opportunity to savor this gorgeous story about pursuing your dreams, despite insurmountable odds.
Brenda Didier’s put her own mark on this musical, focusing on the sad young boy at its helm who, if not for his fateful discovery of the choreographic art, would’ve eventually ended up like his father and brother, toiling away in the mines for substandard wages. Young Lincoln Seymour (who shares the title role at alternate performances with Jacob Kaiser) has the perfect melancholy, downtrodden look of an adolescent who’s still mourning the loss of his mother and doesn’t see any way out of his oppressive existence. He lives in a small, industrial town that may soon see everyone out of work. However, every time the talented young Mr. Seymour smiles, particularly whenever he’s soaring in dance or enjoying the company of his friend Michael, the stage lights up brighter than any miner’s lamp. A terrific singer and dancer, young Mr. Seymour is a youngster who shows promise as a talented dancer beyond this production. The show’s choreography features tap, ballet and modern dance; and all of the choreography is accomplished, heartfelt and meaningful within the context of the story.
Shanesia Davis, is excellent as the feisty, 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. Davis sings, she’s magical; when she dances, it’s from the gut. Paired with the funny and frisky Tommy Novak, as her accompanist Mr. Braithwaite, the two team up with Billy to present a moving and humorous “Born to Boogie.” Ms. Davis’ 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” company of a little girls in the corps de ballet.
The respected, multitalented Chicago actor Sean Fortunato is strong and driven, torn and conflicted as Billy’s Dad. Longtime prejudices about poufs who dance are mixed with his desire to do what’s best for his young son. 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 out for Billy. Mr. Fortunato’s “Deep Into the Ground” is one of the show’s more quiet highlights, both stirring and heartfelt. Usually playing comic or romantic musical roles, Adam Fane, is almost unrecognizable while making his dramatic debut as Tony, Billy’s older brother. Tony’s determined to leave his mark as a leader of the striking miners, both 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 one of Mr. Fane’s finest pieces of work, to date. Nicole Cready brings a beautiful, clear soprano to Mum, displayed brilliantly in “Dear Billy;” and Iris Lieberman is both hilarious and heartrending as Billy’s Grandma. Her number, “We’d Go Dancing,” is poignant and beautifully danced by Graham Hawley and Jenny McPherson. Peyton Owen is self-assured, charismatic and absolutely delightful as Billy’s friend, Michael. The two boys let it 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 strengths we harbor and our need to always be true to ourselves. This production also demonstrates the need for keeping art in our school system, as well as in our own mundane lives. Ms. Didier and her astoundingly talented cast all bring “Electricity” to the stage of the remodeled Ruth Page Center for the Arts, while rejoicing in what it means to follow your dream and live the life that’s meant for you.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 6-December 31 by Porchlight Music Theatre in their new home at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 773-777-9884 or by going to www.PorchlightMusicTheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.