Jon Martens as Michael and Liam Vincent Hutt as Billy sing "Expressing Yourself" in Goodspeed Musicals BILLY ELLIOT. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

The cast of Goodspeed Musicals BILLY ELLIOT sing the memorable Elton John tune "Solidarity". Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Puppet master Maggie Thatcher sics the police on the striking coal miners in Goodspeed's BILLY ELLIOT. Photo: Diane Sobolewski

Liam Vincent Hutt as Billy does his ANGRY DANCE in Goodspeed Musicals production of BILLY ELLIOT. Photo: Diane Sobolewski

As Mrs. Wilkinson (Michelle Aravena) looks on, Billy (Liam Vincent Hutt) shows his graceful style in Goodspeed's BILLY ELLIOT. Photo: Diane Sobolewski

Boys DO Dance In Goodspeed Musicals Rousing BILLY ELLIOT

Liam Vincent Hutt as Billy and Michelle Aravena as Mrs. Wilkinson in a ballet lesson from Goodspeed's BILLY ELLIOT.
Photo by Diane Sobolewski

 Boys DO Dance In Goodspeed Musicals Rousing BILLY ELLIOT

By Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle

Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam Connecticut has a treat in store for anyone lucky enough to book tickets between now and November 24 for the energetic production of the Lee Hall/Elton John musical romp Billy Elliot. Sparkling with infectious energy, this is a tour-de-force of memorable songs and exceptional dance. 

In the story, based on the British movie of the same name, Young Billy Elliot is pulled between his family’s coal-mining roots and his newly discovered passion to dance. With a rough and tumble older brother and an equally tough father, Billy’s only chance to dance will depend on his courage and inner strength to express himself.

The first five scenes set the background for the coal miner’s strike in the north of England during 1984-1985. Before the musical begins, the cast engages with the audience, prodding ticket holders to sign petitions to get rid of Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher and enticing us to “boo” every time the horrible old witch’s name is mentioned. The rousing anthem, “Solidarity” solidifies a community attempting to  get better wages and working conditions for the future.

Meanwhile, Billy (alternately played by Liam Vincent Hutt*, who we saw on press night, and the equally talented young Californian Taven Blanke*) becomes disillusioned with being forced to take boxing lessons and realizes that he’s curiously drawn to the ballet classes that take place in the same gymnasium. Young Mr. Hutt is marvelous as Billy. He not only has nailed the North England accent, but sings wonderfully and dances like a dream. Nureyev would be envious of his remarkable extensions. 

(The Goodspeed staff encourages show-goers to see the musical twice to experience how each actor creates his own take on the Billy character.)

Michelle Aravena* takes on the role of Mrs. Wilkinson, the chain-smoking dance teacher with a hilarious take-no-prisoners attitude, but somewhere underneath her façade is the ubiquitous “heart-of-gold” so prevalent in musical shows. Ms. Aravena and Mr. Hutt have real chemistry as student and teacher – essential to the story.

Billy’s best friend Michael, deliciously played by scene-stealer Jon Martens*, encourages Billy to ignore all the pressures his family and neighbors are putting on him. The two boys play dress up in the crowd-pleasing number “Expressing Yourself.”  It’s a true showstopper and the audience went wild with hoots, cheers and whistles!

Billy’s tough, bigoted Dad is played by Sean Hayden*, who has a brilliant voice that is underused in this show. He’s been given a maudlin song “Deep In The Ground” that he sings beautifully despite the awful tune and lyrics.  Those pitch-perfect pipes are better suited to Rodgers and Hammerstein classics.

 Gabriel Sidney Brown* as Billy’s older brother Tony comes to grips with his brother’s talent in “He Could Be A Star” as he realizes that going to the Royal Ballet School is the only way Billy can have a decent life doing what he loves.  Grandma, Billy’s staunch ally, is portrayed by Barbara Marineau* and although the old lady suffers from a bit of memory loss, she still remembers being married for 33 years to a bastard of a husband in “Grandma’s Song.”

Erica Parks, a World Tap Dance Champion, plays Debbie – a ballet girl who has her eye on Billy; while crystal-voiced Rachel Rhodes-Devey* is Billy’s Dead Mom – who is conjured up mostly in his mind.

The  entire ensemble brings magnificent vocal power to the choral numbers, with “Shine” and “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher” being two standouts. To be fair, each actor gives 100% to this show, so we’ll name them all :  Margot Anderson-Song, Amy Button, Billy Cohen*, Richard Costa*, Julia Louise Hosack*, Erik Gratton* (who shines as Mr. Brathwaite, the ballet school pianist),  Emily Larger*, Connor McRory*, Simon Pearl*, William Daniel Russell, Tess Santarsiero , and Camiel Warren-Taylor. Shout-outs to Jesse Swimm* as George the boxing instructor, Byron St. Cyr* with his big booming voice and Nick Silverio who dances with strength and grace as the Older Billy. The swings for this production are Gerard Lanzerotti and Samantha Littleford.

Billy Elliot The Musical is directed by Gabriel Barre. Gabriel is an internationally-acclaimed director whose recent Goodspeed production of Amazing Grace went on to both Broadway and Washington, DC. Our only reservation is that in the first few scenes the ‘anger’ of the strikers came across as a bit of overacting and excessive shouting rather than true emotional frustration.

Choreography by Marc Kimelman is stunning in places, especially with Billy’s balletic numbers, and credit as dance captain goes to Nick Silverio.

The Music Director for Billy Elliot is the  terrifically talented Michael O’Flaherty, who is in his 28th season as Goodspeed’s Resident Music Director. The 17 musicians (both active and alternates) under his baton enhance the vocals with just the right balance between singers and music.

Scenic Design  by Walt Spangler, with its ramps, rolling staircases and mine-shaft elevator work magic. There are a couple of prop doorways held up by an actor on each side, which, instead of being clever, tend to be distracting – what are those actors doing holding up a door during a crucial scene? But he redeems himself with the giant Maggie Thatcher puppet scowling on the miners with her rat-like face.

Jennifer Caprio’s costumes are 1984 appropriate, and young Michael’s “Elton John” look is superstar spot-on.  Lighting Design by Jason Kantrowitz imparts the right gloom when the miners and police are battling, (fight choreography by UnkleDave’s Fight-House) and Goodspeed’s own Jay Hilton has got the Sound Design tuned to perfection; while Wig and Hair designer Mark Adam Rampmeyer still has his magic touch after more than 20 productions at Goodspeed Musicals. Orchestrations are by Dan DeLange - this marks his 21st year and 55th show for Goodspeed Musicals.

Producer Donna Lynn Cooper Hilton and the Goodspeed Musicals’ team have chosen wisely to bring this exceptional and timely  production to the Goodspeed Opera House stage. As for a “spoiler alert”, you’ll never see a curtain call quite as joyful, funny, enthusiastic or musically thrilling anywhere, ever. “Billy Elliot” will have you twirling out of the theater.

Curtain times are Wednesday at 2:00p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m. (with select performances at 2:00 p.m.), Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (with select performances at 6:30 p.m.)

*Denotes Member Actors Equity Association