Theater Review: ‘Billy Elliot the Musical’ Is Electrifying

Theater Review: ‘Billy Elliot the Musical’ Is Electrifying

Gateway Playhouse’s production of Billy Elliot, which runs through August 8, is the theater’s most spectacular show this season. With a compelling story by Lee Hall and a sensational musical score by Elton John, Billy Elliot takes audiences on an unforgettable journey that leaves them breathless.

On the eve of the coal miner’s strike of 1984 in northern England, audiences are introduced to the working class community of Durham County, including the motherless family of Billy, his father Jack, brother Tony and their grandmother. The opening number, “The Stars Look Down,” a tribute to the hardships faced by those affected by the strike, is raw and powerful, with the drums emanating from the orchestra pit into your heartbeat.

Our Billy was played by a veteran of the role, 15-year-old Mitchell Tobin, who portrayed Billy in the London production as well as on the national tour and in LA. Sharing the role is 12-year-old Brandon Ranalli, making his professional debut at Gateway.

Billy stumbles into Mrs. Wilkinson’s all-female ballet class, and to his surprise finds himself intrigued by ballet (“Shine”). Mrs. Wilkinson, played by the delightful Janet Dickinson, notices Billy’s natural talent for dancing and encourages him not only to join her class but to audition for the Royal Ballet Academy, unbeknownst to Billy’s ultra-conservative father and brother. Billy confides in his best friend Michael, played by the very talented and funny Ethan Eisenberg, about his newfound passion for dance, and the two sing about “Expressing Yourself” as they dance around in women’s clothes, embracing each other’s differences.

Billy learns to dance despite the ugliness of the strike around him, and seems to find peace in the moments he is with Mrs. Wilkinson. The duo’s heartfelt, tearjerker performance of “The Letter” is so full of sadness and hope, reflecting the strife surrounding the mining community. The juxtaposition of ballet and the violent strike is exhilarating in “Solidarity.”

As they compose Billy’s audition dance in “Born to Boogie” we see the boy coming to life before us, and the talent of Tobin is undeniable. His accent is as endearing as his singing, and his dancing is a feast for the eyes. When Billy’s brother and father discover he has been working with Mrs. Wilkinson, which they do on the morning of his audition, they are furious and forbid him to continue. In his “Angry Dance,” Billy’s emotions explode out of him in the form of one of the most compelling dance routines I have ever witnessed, and the music serves to heighten Billy’s turbulent emotions, mirroring the violence taking place between the union workers and the police.

Act Two begins during Christmas, one of the leanest Christmases this community has seen, and the blame is placed on the anti-union Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher,” the company puts on a hilarious scene, lamenting the infamous leader and celebrating the fact that each day brings her closer to death. Billy’s father is depressed, sad, drunk, and hopelessly missing his wife. In his solo, “Deep Into the Ground,” Craig Bennet as Billy’s dad translates his despair into a heartfelt ballad, and it’s impossible not to be moved by this moment.

Later, for the first time in months, Billy dances. Jack inadvertently catches him and cannot believe how talented his son is. He immediately seeks out Mrs. Wilkinson to see if his Billy could have another chance to audition for the school.

Overcoming many obstacles, including an irate Tony and no funds to travel, Billy beats the odds and secures his audition. In the number “Electricity,” Billy explains to the panel judging him just how he feels about dance—that it comes from deep within, as if electricity were flowing through
his veins.

The night Billy discovers he has been accepted to the ballet school is the night the union caves in and loses the strike. The miners are forced to go back to work—“Once We Were Kings” marks
their final stand—and the music is intoxicating.

Billy goes off to school after a final emotional encounter with his ghostly mother, after which the cast calls him back for a rousing finale, dancing their way firmly into our hearts as they bring this profound journey to its end.

Don’t miss this production of Billy Elliot the Musical, produced by the Gateway and playing at the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts through August 8. For tickets and more information, visit gatewayplayhouse.org.

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