SD Union Tribune Theatre Preview: Dancing with dreams in San Diego Musical Theatre’s ‘Billy Elliot’

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Dancing with dreams in San Diego Musical Theatre’s ‘Billy Elliot’
By James Hebert

A small boy grows up in an industrial town in the north of England, dreaming of escaping the lot of a laborer for a life onstage.

Neil Dale knows the story, because it’s his own. The actor-director, who’s helming the movie-based “Billy Elliot the Musical” for San Diego Musical Theatre, is from the port city of Liverpool, which shares working-class roots with the original 2000 film’s shooting location of Easington.

Dale knew from an early age that he wanted to be an actor, but he encountered resistance from plenty of people, including an English teacher who laughed in his face when he confided his ambitions.

Unlike the ballet-loving Billy in the movie and musical, though, “I had a family that was totally supportive of me,” Dale says. “And I always say I was too dumb to know any better. I didn’t know how tough the industry would be.

“It wasn’t that I wanted to prove them wrong. I just didn’t believe them. So I just kept going.”

That persistence landed Dale a considerable career on London’s West End (in such shows as “Miss Saigon” and “Les Miserables”) and now San Diego, where he has performed in several big productions since moving here with his wife, an actor and local native.

And now he’s making his area directorial debut with “Billy Elliot,” the Elton John-scored show that won 10 Tony Awards in 2009, including best musical.Its story centers on a young ballet prodigy whose dedication to dance causes major rifts in his tradition-minded family; those conflicts are set against the strife of the 1984 miners’ strike, an event Dale remembers well for how it affected his own family and friends in Liverpool.

The show’s title role is a tricky one to cast because of its ballet demands; the Broadway production initially starred the rotating trio of David Alvarez, Kiril Kulish and Trent Kowalik, who jointly won the leading-actor Tony.(Both Kulish and Alvarez trained in San Diego — the latter at California Ballet, which is co-producing “Billy Elliot” in its first such collaboration with SDMT.)

As fate would have it, Dale was acting in a holiday production of “Snow White” here last year when he noticed one young castmate who “never stopped dancing — he was always dancing, always pirouetting.”That was Charlie Garton, who was only 9 at the time. Now 10 — still a year younger than the Billy character himself — the Del Mar Pines School student is stepping up to lead the show.

“He’s a beautiful little actor; he’s got a beautiful voice,” says Dale. “He really is a little Billy Elliot. He’s just a worker.”

And the production is going to need every bit of work that Charlie and the rest of the cast and creative team can manage, Dale says.

“It’s a massive show. Every show here is big, but we have 37 cast members. ‘Solidarity’ is a 12-minute song with literally every single cast member onstage.

“It’s just amazing.”

‘Billy Elliot the Musical’

When: Preview performance Friday. Opens Saturday. Schedule: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 8.

Where: San Diego Musical Theatre at the Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway, downtown.

: $22-$72 (discounts available)

Phone: (858) 560-5740


SDMT on the move
San Diego Musical Theatre, which celebrates its 11th anniversary this month, is about to shake things up a bit: The company has announced it will depart downtown’s Spreckels Theatre — its prime performance home over the past couple of years — in favor of the nearby (and much smaller) Horton Grand.

SDMT has been sharing the Horton Grand with Intrepid Theatre since last year, staging some smaller-scale shows there. Now, with Intrepid moving out, SDMT will manage the venue as well as produce there.

“After spending time in multiple theaters, we have long desired to be in one place,” producer Erin Lewis (who founded the company with her husband, Gary), said in announcing the move.

“The Horton Grand Theatre is a unique and intimate space, where the audience will feel right in the show.”

Producing exclusively there “also provides us with the opportunity to expand our programming as well as aiding in the financial longevity of SDMT,” she said.

Along with the move, SDMT also has announced the appointment of Neil Dale (now directing “Billy Elliot”) as production manager, Stephen Longfellow as technical director and Carolyn Agan as director of education. Don LeMaster remains resident musical director.

And the company has announced its 2018 lineup at the Horton Grand. Here’s what’s on the way:

  • The Full Monty, Jan. 26 to Feb. 25
  • South Pacific, April 27 to May 27
  • Hairspray, Aug. 3 to Sept. 2
  • Young Frankenstein, Sept. 28 to Oct. 28


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