SD Union Tribune Theatre Review: Billy Elliot Soars at the Spreckels

 In Season

By Pam Kragen

Last year, the original London production of “Billy Elliot the Musical” closed after 11 years of performances.Now, 11-year-old San Diego Musical Theater and co-producer California Ballet are presenting the bittersweet dance-rich story in its San Diego regional theater premiere at the Spreckels Theatre.

The production that opened Saturday night is a clear high-water mark for San Diego Musical Theatre. With 37 performers onstage and 13 musicians in conductor/musical director Don LeMaster’s pit, it’s a huge undertaking, but the tear-jerker of a show has both intimacy and heart.

San Diegans first saw “Billy Elliot” when a national tour of the Broadway production visited the Civic Theatre in 2013. But having seen the much-grittier, darker and more political original in London, I found the slick, lighter and more comical U.S. adaptation unsatisfying.

While some of these elements remain, the SDMT/CalBallet production has more of the dialect, darkness and Britishness of both the London original and its source material.

“Billy Elliot” (Celtic-infused score by Elton John, book and lyrics by Lee Hall) is based on Stephen Daldry’s 2000 film about a young boy from a Northern England coal-mining town who secretly dreams of joining the Royal Ballet. His story plays out during England’s explosive 1984 coal miners’ strike, which preceded the dismantling of the country’s coal industry.

Liverpool-raised director Neil Dale and English-born dialect coach Vanessa Dinning have restored much of the story’s Britishness. There’s no shying away from the R-rated language or the County Durham accent and vernacular, which can be quite hard to understand.

The story is touching and occasionally raw, but it’s the dancing that soars. Jared Nelson, CalBallet’s associate artistic director, has put his own stamp on the dance numbers, particularly Billy’s “Angry Dance,” when he furiously pirouettes, taps, kicks and hurls himself around the stage after his coal-mining dad refuses to let him audition for the ballet.

Bringing Billy to life is the astonishingly talented Charlie Garton, a 10-year-old Del Mar grade-schooler who started dancing just three years ago. Not only can Garton pull off the rigorous ballet, jazz and tap demands of the role, he’s also got charisma, a confident stage presence, a sweet singing voice and a natural flair for acting and dialect.

One of the show’s highlights is a dream ballet between Garton’s young Billy and his adult self, beautifully performed by CalBallet soloist Zachary Guthier. Another is the full-cast “Solidarity” number, where Garton and girls in tutus dance around and between the rows of striking miners, picketing townspeople and billy club-toting English policemen.

Doug Tompos gives a heart-wrenching performance as Billy’s widowed Dad. Joy Yandell blossoms with wonder as Billy’s gruff dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson. Luke Monday is fiery as Billy’s older brother Tony. Morgan Carberry has an aching stillness and reserve as Billy’s dead Mum. And Mackernan Jarman is endearing as Billy’s gay best friend, Michael.

There’s also some nice comic character work by Donny Gersonde as an exuberant dance studio accompanist and Alexandra Gonzalez as Billy’s foul-mouthed granny.

Some critics have said the stage version of “Billy Elliot” lacks the gut-punch potency of the film, but what this production does re-create well is the explosive joy and thrill of watching Billy discover and express himself through the medium of dance.

“Billy Elliot the Musical”

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 8.

Where: San Diego Musical Theatre and California Ballet at the Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway, downtown

Tickets: $22-$72 (discounts available)

Phone: (858) 560-5740


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