Review: ‘Billy Elliot’ at Signature Theatre

Signature’s Billy Elliot the Musical soars with expressive, youthful dance energy and a liberating message of doing what you need to do to be who you want to be. Directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner, Billy Elliot is positively exhilarating, even in politically-charged scenes when dance becomes a choreographed rage.

Liam Redford (Billy Elliot), Chris Genebach (Dad) and the ensemble of Billy Elliot at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.
Liam Redford (Billy Elliot), Chris Genebach (Dad) and the ensemble of Billy Elliot at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Sung and danced through an array of 15 original musical numbers (music by Elton John and book and lyrics by Lee Hall), Billy Elliot especially soars with the awesome dance talent of Signature newcomer, a stylish and poised Liam Redford (who alternates with Owen Tabaka in the title role of the 11-year-old character Billy Elliot) or when a gaggle of well-rehearsed, delightfully rowdy dancers crosses into any number of dance genres, no matter their ages or presenting genders.

You name it, they dance it. Utterly beautiful ballet, tap with great flair, Fosse-style jazz, syncopated robotic movements of bored workers and menacing police, teasing flash-dance take-offs with a PG touch and even some tumbling too.

The highly successful Signature creative team includes Musical Director Tom Vendafreddo leading an eight-member orchestra and Associate Choreographer Kelly Crandall d’Amboise. d’Amboise was also key in casting many local young performers and dancers in the production.

Billy Elliot is the tale of an 11-year-old British boy who is growing up in the mid-1980s. Coal has been king, coal mining an honest, though dirty, day’s work. Change comes when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher aims to break the solidarity of the coal miner’s union. She sends in the police who taunt the miners by turning a rousing union song “Solidarity” into something much different as the police sing, “We send our kids to private school. On a private bus. We’ve got a lot to thank you for.” And while they sing, they move with menace with batons in their hands.

And then there is young Billy. Unsure of himself; struggling with the death of his mother. One thing he knows: he has no desire to go underground to become a coal miner like his stressed-out, single Dad (Chris Genebach) and his hot-headed older brother (Sean Watkinson).

By a fluke, Billy’s limited world begins to enlarge. He discovers dancing. After a humorously dismal boxing lesson, he spies a group of “Ballet Girls” dealing with their own personal struggles. The Ballet Girls are being taught by a tough-minded local dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson (a stand-out, brassy and big-hearted Nancy Anderson). In the dazzling song “Shine,” Mrs.Wilkinson sings and visually expresses these instructions: “All you have to do is shine. Forget about content. Focus on style…smile.”  

Then with the help of his best friend Michael (with deliciously vibrant Jacob Thomas Anderson), Billy begins to discover his own place in life. Michael joyfully suggests that they show disdain for social norms by “Expressing Yourself.” They dance with wild exuberance, trying on the clothes of Michael’s sister. As they dance, Michael belts out “What the hell is wrong with expressing yourself? Being who you want to be?”

Adding to dance as Billy’s way out from the dingy world he lives in, Mrs. Wilkinson struts with cheerfulness and swings her hips while singing that all people are meant to dance in “Born to Boogie.” Even Billy’s grandmother (the incomparable Catherine Flye) sings how important dance is through a dream about life with her usually drunk husband. When they danced they “were free for an hour or three, from the people we had to be” until in the morning “we were sober.”

Billy’s journey has many a speed bump. He becomes enraged and taps an explosive “Angry Dance” when his upset Dad tries to control him (“Angry Dance” Tap Choreographer Mark Orsborn).

A turning point comes when Billy is left to himself and dreams of what it would be like as a dancer. Music from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake swells. With Grant Richards as Adult Billy, there is a most beautiful confident pas de Deux. The dance is also quite thrilling because young Billy is often flying high about the audience (shout out to the safe flying accomplished by Abbie Clements, Deck Chief and Automation Technician and Kyle Dill and Jude Rodriguez, Deck Run Crew).

Owen Tabaka (Billy Elliot), Nancy Anderson (Mrs. Wilkinson). Photo by Christopher Mueller.
Owen Tabaka (Billy Elliot), Nancy Anderson (Mrs. Wilkinson). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Finally, Billy’s dance talents are recognized by his now-sympathetic Dad and the local coal mining community who have come to terms with Billy’s talents (“He Could Be A Star”). Off he goes to an audition in London. Released from his own fears, Billy dances with total abandon to show how dance makes him feel though a self-assured, “Electricity.” From there it is only a matter of time before Billy has other options before him and hard choices to make.

In a production so focused on dance, Jason Sherwood’s scene design provides plenty of dance space with a large open area. There are few set pieces and an upper level with many doors that pop open, a bedroom cubicle for Billy, and a wall that takes on the appearance of cinderblock. The lighting design by Amanda Zieve is also dance-focused as it highlights the dancing whether solo, duet or company numbers.

Billy Eillot The Musical at Signature is going to be one hot ticket. Grab one while you can.

Running Time: About two hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission.

Billy Elliot the Musical plays through January 6, 2019, at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets, call (703) 820-9771, or go online.