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Every once in a while live theater offers the opportunity for a truly remarkable event. This can be planned, and the McCoy Rigby Entertainment production of “Billy Elliot the Musical” might even reach those standards on its own. But when the immediacy of a live production becomes a part of the drama, that becomes even more of a specialized thrill.
Let’s face it: from a dance perspective, or even from the perspective of its multiple themes – respecting individual promise, tolerance, dying traditions, or the tricky nature of living between two established and contradictory sub-cultures – “Billy Elliot” is a powerful, likable, satisfying piece of musical theater. The fact of McCoy Rigby Entertainment being offered one of few licenses to produce a first regional productions is not surprising, given their track record of both respect for and quality of the musical art form. And then comes the extra layer.
Only a week before opening, the talented young Noah Parets, their Billy, broke his arm during rehearsal. Considering how thoroughly the show rests upon Billy, who almost never leaves the stage and dances massive, emotionally charged, physically demanding solos, this stopped the show it its tracks. Thus the drama. After a quick and panicked search, 14-year-old Mitchell Tobin took over the role, which was to open in five days. The good news is, he’s terrific – emotionally satisfying, gifted and amazingly connected. He still looks around a bit, as the choreography is somewhat new even to this “Billy” veteran. Still, in watching him, feeling the audience willing him to succeed, one could not help but feel a part of the show in a uniquely participatory way.
This only enhanced an otherwise highly enjoyable production. The cast is strong throughout, the choreography by Dana Salimando rich and engaging, and the look and feel of the thing crisply paced, authentically evoked, and deeply satisfying, thanks to director Brian Kite. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the script and lyrics were written by the film’s screenwriter, Lee Hall, and the music is the best to date for Broadway by Elton John, or that as a musical it has picked up just about every award possible. Still, this production lives up to that promise.
The story, for those who do not know, is filled with the pathos of changing times. It is the 1980s, the Labour Party – associated with creating Britain’s Euro-Socialism – has been replaced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives. The new government’s moves to close underproductive mines lead to coal miners’ strikes which, as it turned out, led to the defeat of the country’s most powerful union and the gradual, eventual closing of almost all deep coal mines in Britain. In the subculture of coal mining, as it wanes, a boy named Billy, pushed toward manliness by taking boxing lessons, chooses ballet instead and proves naturally talented. What happens next is, perhaps, an indicator of larger changing times.
As has been said, Tobin does well, making an engaging, vulnerable, deeply likable Billy. As the brassy woman who soon recognizes his talents, Vicki Lewis provides much of the comedy, and delivers home truths with style. Also fun, as Billy’s friend and fellow social oddity Michael, Jake Kitchin makes the slightly geeky gently engaging. He and Tobin also share one of the show’s silly-coolest moments in “Expressing Yourself.” Likewise, Marsha Waterbury’s forgetful, opinionated grandma adds to both the comedy and pathos, as she delivers both the hope and the bitterness of her world with an offhand brusqueness.
David Atkinson plays Billy’s father, finding a neat balance between love, frustration, and increasing fear. In her brief but important appearances, Kim Huber exudes warmth and nurture as Billy’s late mother. The host of finely articulated, embittered miners, their wives and children, and the silly squad of young girls in the ballet class with Billy all add color and texture to a very satisfying tale.
Yet, because it becomes so thoroughly the focus, what you will remember best is Tobin’s Billy. He really is an extraordinary dancer, especially for his age. And in this instance, that becomes all the more impressive. This is a finely crafted, emotionally satisfying show, and definitely worth going to see. The added bit of last-minute drama does nothing but add to the respect for all involved, and to the sheer quality of the entire product they ended up with.
What: “Billy Elliot the Musical” When: Through February 8, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 or at http://www.lamiradatheatre.com
This appears to be the season for resurrecting modern musicals which have productions far more impressive than their substance. This leaves a critic with a difficult charge, at least if the production itself is done well.
Take as an example the version of Elton John’s “Aida” at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont. The production shows polish and style. The musical being produced, however, is still Elton John’s “Aida” – one of those shows where you go out humming the set and discussing the costumes, rather than connecting with the storyline, the characters or the songs.
The story of “Aida” first gained fame as an opera by Guiseppi Verdi. It’s towering arias and lush incidental music gained it an immediate following, and it is still seen as a pinnacle performance for great singers around the globe. The thing is, in opera you don’t much care of the plot is silly, or wildly melodramatic, or historically profoundly inaccurate. All that really matters in the end is the music, and generations have found Verdi’s music glorious.
The story follows the romance between Radames, a successful commander of the pharaoh’s army, and a captive Ethiopian slave, Aida, who turns out to be the daughter of the Ethiopian king. Radames is already engaged to Pharoah’s daughter, Amneris, who becomes suspicious of Aida and Radames. Amid war with Aida’s home country, during which her father is captured, and the wrath of Pharaoh, the love affair is as doomed as Romeo and Juliet. Indeed, in the end they are buried alive together.
Elton John and Tim Rice use the same plot, though a simplified version, and essentially the same characters. They do emphasize the racial divide, as Egyptians are portrayed as white, while the Ethiopians they are out to conquer (now called Nubians) are – as they historically were – black. Still, there is little opportunity to become engaged with characters who remain undeveloped as individuals, mostly because the script doesn’t give personality much time.
Sometimes a performance can rise above the essential superficiality. Interestingly, at Candlelight Pavilion, Lindsay Martin’s Amneris does just that, finding the princess’ internal struggle between love and honor, and becoming the most sympathetic of the participants. Amber Thompson provides the richest and most interesting voice, singing with passion and intensity enough to embody her own struggle between nation and heart.
Adam Lubicz strides about with passion as Radames, but the emotional connection between him and Thompson’s Aida remains somewhat unconvincing. John LaLonde would be twirling his mustaches if he had them as Radames’ manipulative father, Zoser. Wesley Mosteller seems likable as Radames’ Nubian slave, whose main job is to give Aida’s position perspective. Monica Quinn Gonzalez, as another of the slaves, becomes important as her character sacrifices herself for Aida while the Nubians work to save their king.
Director /choreographer Paul David Bryant has given this show a continuity and energy which bring the story along. The entire cast has a sense of ensemble, and works as a unit to make the show as dramatic as possible. If I would change one thing, it would be the several moments where Radames takes off his heavy coat, making him instantly smaller and a far less romantic figure.
The sets and props, provided by Riverside Community College, are fascinatingly simple and evocative. The costumes from the Maine State Musical Theater seem rather eclectic – sometimes confusingly so, combining light-weight clothing evocative of Egyptian traditions with heavy robes, tunics and boots more suited to The Lord of the Rings.
In short, if you are fond of Elton John, or wish to see this musical – which admittedly won a Tony for its score, but in a year when most musicals were dance concerts performed to canned recordings of pop tunes – this will be an excellent way to do so. Still, it remains a show which provides spectacle without the essential empathy which makes an interesting musical into an emotional powerhouse.
What: Elton John’s “Aida” When: Through June 3, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 5 p.m. Sundays, with doors open for lunch and a matinee at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $48 – $68, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com