By Carly Fisher
When you think of Margaret Thatcher and the Mining Strikes of 1984, it’s quite surprising that one of the most famous pop-culture references set against that period is that of a 12 year old boy wanting to pursue ballet over boxing. However, Billy Elliot, since it’s initial release as a 2000 dance drama film, followed by its West End opening in 2005, has captured the hearts of audiences around the world who want to cheer for individuality, cheer for a change in hard-headed, bigoted opinions and cheer for young people everywhere chasing their dreams. Set to music by Elton John and featuring dance number after dance number, this musical has all the elements to be a true crowd pleaser.
I’ll be honest though, it has never been one of my personal favourites and that is largely because of how miserable so much of the story (and accompanying tunes) are. That aside, this new production, which opened this week at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre, is such high quality, fans of the show from its 2007 run in Australia, and new audiences for sure, may well want to run to get tickets before missing out.
Let’s start by focusing on the true stars of the show – the kids. Asked to deliver comic timing, accent work, decent vocal range and skill in multiple disciplines of dance, these kids don’t have an easy job and yet they absolutely rise to the challenge. On opening night, Jamie Rogers took on the titular role with an enthusiasm and diligence that proves he will go far in this industry. Talented across the board, Rogers star shone brightest when he was given his trusty tap shoes – a natural tapper, the Tap Dogs may well want to sign him up now.
Partnering as his best friend, James Sonnemann played Michael for Sydney’s opening night and let me tell you, this kid is a star! A consummate showman at only 11 years old, I cannot wait to see what comes next for this kid.
By far, the highlight of the night for me was seeing the duet ‘Expressing Yourself’ between Michael and Billy (and some very creative dancing costumes) come to life on stage. Many of us in the opening night audience would have, at some stage, trained in the Arts ourselves or have kids who have, or at least have a great appreciation for what it takes. So there is little as special as watching 2 young (very young at only 11 and 12 years old) boys with the full spectacular of the Sydney Lyric Stage adorned with glitter and thousands of encouraging fans watching, simply living out their dream and completely owning that stage for a complicated and completely crowd-pleasing dance number. I had tears in my eyes watching the joy that radiated from the two of them – its what makes musicals that feature young actors so important and so enjoyable and I couldn’t have been happier for the two of them!
Rounding out the star cast of young talent, Debbie was taken on by the wonderful Gabrielle Daggar whose comic timing I am positive will ensure her a spot on our stages time and time again after this, her professional debut.
Not to be forgotten, the adults offer brilliant performances, particularly Kelley Abbey as the tough but caring Mrs Wilkinson. Her accent may not be 100% perfect all the time but her performance totally outshines this and there is something so authentic and exciting about seeing one of Australia’s dance royalty almost back in her teaching roots taking on a character like this – take away the crazy costumes, it’s all very meta and as someone who grew up taking more than a couple of her classes, it certainly made me laugh. Justin Smith was a fantastic choice as Billy’s father – Jackie Elliot is a complicated role; he is bigoted and rough but with an unwavering duty to his family and a real full circle journey through the musical.
The title and ensemble cast as a whole proved very strong, with a special shout out to Vivien Davies’ fabulous comedy as Grandma and the superbly sharp and dynamic ensemble cast of miners.
For me though, the real star of this show was the perfect choreography by Peter Darling. Firstly, the mixing of styles, forms and disciplines ensures that only the best of the best can be considered for Darling’s work here, but the creativity of mixing the worlds – the miners and ballerinas, Billy and the police, even the police and the miners, etc was simply stunning and made for some of the greatest visual work I’ve seen in musical theatre in Sydney this year. ‘Solidarity’ is an absolute show-stopper because of the perfect balance between one of the best songs musically in the score, and creative, hard hitting and unique choreography. ‘Electricity’ too offers that beautiful blend, this time more simplistically but just as magically.
Highlighting these stellar visuals, Rick Fisher's lighting design is brilliant, using lighting to create some powerful, hair-raising images such as that of the miners heading down into the ground again, and some beautiful shadow work.
So, whilst I may never be transformed into a major fan of the still-too-miserable musical, I must say, this production is as good as this show gets and I think audiences will be in for a treat visually and thanks to a brilliant display of local, and young, talent.
Image Credit: James D. Morgan
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.