Lyric Theatre’s summer season at Civic Center Music Hall has been more style than substance, but the company is ending its downtown run on the upswing with Billy Elliot, a musical based on the 2000 film of the same title. In this show, Lyric combines a fine cast with a quality production to tell a compelling story. The result: a satisfying evening of musical theater.
The show is set in the Newcastle coal-mining region of Northern England in 1984. At odds with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government, the coal miners’ union has gone on what would be a bitter, crushing strike. The young Billy Elliot’s father and brother work as coal miners, and they faithfully man the picket line.
Meanwhile, this working-class community carries on as normally as possible for the children. Although he has no interest in the sport, Billy takes boxing lessons at a local community center. One day, he happens upon a ballet class there, where the teacher encourages him to join in. Before long, the teacher realizes Billy has a natural talent for dance, and Billy himself feels he’s found something he loves to do and maybe can do well. But he knows studying ballet isn’t an option for a Newcastle coal miner’s son.
None other than Elton John composed the original music, and Lee Hall wrote the book and lyrics. John’s enjoyable score sounds like it could have been written for a musical of 50 years ago. He covers the gamut from jaunty two-steps, soulful ballads, novelty numbers and biting satire. “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher” shows how bitter the dispute between the prime minister and coal miners had become.
Thus, director Ashley Wells and choreographer Amy Reynolds-Reed are working with quality material, and they guide the cast — which consists of more than 30 actors — and stage the show with sure hands (and feet). The stage version doesn’t come close to the film’s grittiness and edginess, but it does preserve some of the motion picture’s earthy language and characters. The actors don’t speak with the thick Newcastle brogue, but dialect coach Rena Cook has prepared them well with credible accents.
In the title role, 12-year-old Brooks Landegger gives a performance actors three times his age would envy. Landegger has lots of professional ballet experience and makes his musical theater debut here. In addition to being an accomplished dancer, he’s a fine actor and singer and gives an impressive performance in a role that requires him to shoulder much of the show.
The production features other fine performances. As Billy’s brother and father, Tim Rogan and Christopher Bloch are whipsawed between fighting it out as striking miners and eventually showing great compassion for their Billy. Both are excellent. Lyn Cramer plays the straight-talking ballet teacher who first recognizes Billy’s gifts as a dancer. You can see the exact moments she realizes — but finds it hard to believe — the lad has a special talent. Not surprisingly, Brenda Williams is delightful as Billy’s endearing, if addled, grandma. Evan Lennon does a great job as Billy’s young, cross-dressing friend, and their “Expressing Yourself” brings the first act some comic relief.
It also looks sharp. Kimberly Powers’ scenic design involves a lot of well-coordinated moving parts, well lit by Helena Kuukka. Jeffrey Meek’s costumes could be grittier.
Fans of the film will be surprised by the ending of the musical, which pays tribute to a variety of musical theater dancing, from ballet to tap to boogie. The film ends with the grown-up Billy dancing the title role in an all-male production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (something that has actually been staged to critical acclaim). But that scene occurs earlier in this show when young Billy dances the role in a Swan Lake pas de deux with an older version of himself. In the scene, Billy soars in a way that shows the audience the exuberance the lad must feel when he’s dancing. It’s a beautiful scene, and you can’t help but feel for him.