When “Billy Elliot, the Musical” was first seen in the Triangle on tour, flashy production elements often overpowered the tender story of a young boy’s quest to avoid a dead-end life. N.C. Theatre’s production leaves nothing out, yet trumps that tour by refocusing the show on its emotional content and positive messages. A superb cast and creative team make this another company hit.
The musical is set during the 1984 British coal miners’ strike, putting economic hardships on 11-year-old Billy’s family. Billy discovers an affinity for dance when observing the ballet class that comes in after his boxing lessons at the community center. Encouraged by the teacher who sees his talent, but discouraged by his stern father who doesn’t understand what dancing could mean for his son, Billy must decide how to shape his future.
Elton John’s music appropriately fits each mood, but Lee Hall’s script has scenes that go on too long, repeat plot points and take pace-slowing side trips.
Director Eric Woodall does his best to disguise these liabilities with precise, detailed staging that keeps the affecting characterizations at the forefront. Sam Faulkner is the production’s shining light as Billy. His believable acting makes the character extremely sympathetic, while his well-trained, energetic dancing avoids showbiz pizzazz, giving off an engaging “wow, I did it” feeling.
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As Billy’s father, Ira David Wood III goes from blustery coldness to gratifying warmth, skillfully mixing humor and emotion. Wood’s real-life son, Ira David Wood IV, plays Billy’s older brother with moving anger and despair.
Janet Dickinson, as teacher Mrs. Wilkinson, beautifully balances a crusty, world-weary exterior with a warmhearted, loving side. Shari Jordan communicates quiet affection as the spirit of Billy’s mother.
Jan Neuberger’s Grandma is endearingly loony, Dirk Lumbard’s ballet accompanist Mr. Braithwaite gamely goofy and David Bartlett’s boxing coach George brashly loveable. Evan Lennon deserves special mention as Billy’s dress-wearing friend Michael, whose nonchalant acceptance of himself is charmingly projected.
Campbell Baird’s sets mimic the originals nicely and Craig Stelzenmuller’s lighting adds dramatic atmosphere. The whole cast impressively performs Adam Pelty’s peppy choreography.
There’s strong language here, but it’s appropriate for this gritty story. Don’t let that stop you from seeing this winning production.