Beck Center for the Arts’ ‘Billy Elliot’ lands the grand jete, but falls short of expectations
By Bob Abelman
“Billy Elliot” gets off to a slow start for a musical.
While the nonmusical film on which it was based had the luxury to establish the backstory more organically, the theatergoing audience is required to sit through a historic newsreel explaining the nationalization of the British coal mining industry.
And then we are asked to sit through a most unremarkable opening musical number — a plodding working-class anthem — which serves to remind us that Elton John’s music and Lee Hall’s lyrics were not the reasons “Billy Elliot” earned multiple Tony Awards in 2008.
Rather, it was the immense heart depicted by a small community of characters in a depressed mining town in the early 1980s that earned the accolades. And it was the beautifully crafted artistry employed in telling young Billy Elliot’s story of survival.
Despite the discouragement he receives from the gruff, unsophisticated men who raise him after the death of his mother, Billy discovers his talent for dance and finds an opportunity to express it.
While there is plenty of artistry in the Beck Center for the Arts rendition of “Billy Elliot” — the result of beautifully conceived staging by director Scott Spence and his lighting (Benjamin Gantose), sound (Carlton Guc) and costume (Aimee Kluiber) designers — the production comes up significantly short on heart. And the reason is 12-year-old Seth Judice as Billy.
Judice is a magnificent dancer with national tour and dance competition experience. But he is a passionless performer. And while dancing is central to the storytelling and Martín Cespedes’ take on Peter Darling’s original choreography is as energetic as it is entertaining, there is no emotion in Judice’s movement or in his acting moments with others in the cast.
Because there is no apparent sadness in his soul, Billy’s brief but tender exchanges with his Grandma (a droll and charming Hester Lewellen) and the spirit of his dead Mum (a lovely Brittni Shambaugh Addison) don’t resonate as strongly as they should.
Because there is no pain behind his performance, Billy’s short-tempered Dad, angry older brother and exasperated boxing instructor (the wonderful Allen O’Reilly, Riley Ewing and Bob Goddard, respectively) have to work doubly hard to show their affection for the boy and keep their scenes afloat.
The same goes for the strong-willed dance teacher (the exceptionally talented Katherine DeBoer), who takes Billy under her protective wing and serves as his biggest advocate.
The lack of heart also intrudes on the art.
Without mounting frustration on display, Billy’s “Angry Dance” number at the end of the first act — in which he dramatically lashes out against the local police in an outburst of interpretive dance — seems overtly staged and emotionally flat.
Without showing vulnerability, Billy’s “Electricity” number — in which he tries to express how dancing makes him feel during an audition at the Royal Ballet — is flat and artificial as well. So is his duet, “Expressing Yourself,” with best friend Michael (an overly affected Maurice Kimball IV), which should be a showstopper.
Fortunately, scenes and musical numbers involving the hardworking ensemble of locals and those showcasing the young ballet girls (featuring the delightful Jade McGee and the hilarious Robert Pierce as company accompanist Mr. Braithwaite), manage to soar.
There is plenty to love in this production, including a wonderful nine-piece orchestra under Larry Goodpaster’s direction. And if young Judice figures out how to tap into the title character’s hardship and passion for dance as well as he tap-dances, sitting through a newsreel won’t seem so high a price for an audience to pay. CV
WHAT: “Billy Elliot”
WHERE: Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood
WHEN: Through Aug. 14
TICKETS & INFO: $12-$31. Call 216-521-2540 or visit beckcenter.org
Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on July 11, 2016.
Lead image: Joe Virgo, from left, Riley Ewing, Michael Hinton, Allen O’Reilly, Seth Judice, Greg Good, Zac Roetter and Marcus Martin. PHOTO | Kathy Sandham