Signature Theatre’s “Billy Elliot” is a Winner!

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By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Editor

Owen Tabaka (Billy Elliot), Nancy Anderson (Mrs. Wilkinson) and the ensemble of “Billy Elliot” at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

If you are looking for a Christmas present for you, your family, and your children and grandchildren, the best show in town and running through January 6 is undeniably “Billy Elliot” at Signature Theatre. I should say there are many promising shows I’m going to see that are opening soon in the Metro area, but I can tell you that this one is an unequivocal winner. There is no way that you can sit through this show without smiling, laughing out loud then tearing up, all the while feeling hopeful for the future of our young people even in the face of some pretty tough issues in our world. You can DO it! Billy did it! What did he do, you say? Read on. One caveat, though, there is some strong language and “f” bombs, but you have to make that call for yourselves and your children.

This adaptation of the 2000 movie “Billy Elliot” stays true to the movie, but places Billy and his family and the tiny coal mining town in North Eastern England up close and personal so that you get involved with their lives through Elton John’s soaring score and Lee Hall’s empathetic book and lyrics, portrayed by some of Washington DC’s best triple threat actors/singers/dancers! Signature Theatre’s use of their larger Max Theatre as always, blows me away. Once again, the just-for-this-show configuration of the thrust stage with seating on three sides takes advantage of giving patrons the best sight lines with at worst only four rows of seats possible in front of most everyone and at best only one or two. And with bleacher seating, you won’t miss a word, dance step, nuance, or musical note. The full cast lists 39 performers (including double casting the Ballet Girls and the Billys) and Signature has wisely opened up to stage so that the dancing can get as wild and expansive as it needs to be in a show like this! And remember, I don’t work for this theatre!

Simone Warren (Keeley Gibson), Sissy Sheridan (Susan Parks), Nancy Anderson (Mrs. Wilkinson), Noelle Robinson (Angela Robinson) and Annie Dodson (Alison Summers) in “Billy Elliot” at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.Simone Warren (Keeley Gibson), Sissy Sheridan (Susan Parks), Nancy Anderson (Mrs. Wilkinson), Noelle Robinson (Angela Robinson) and Annie Dodson (Alison Summers) in “Billy Elliot” at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

As Matthew Gardiner, “Billy’s” brilliant director, posited, “It’s a show about people who feel like their voices aren’t being heard. It’s as much about the young boy who wants to break out through dance as it is about the community around him that feels forgotten.” That community is the aforementioned mining town, which is about to go under because the mines are being forced to close down by Maggie Thatcher’s government. So, in order to stave off starvation in a town with no real work other than the mines, the men band together in solidarity of a strike, supporting their union. This is the backdrop for the storyline of a small, scrappy mining family; the father who has just lost his wife and the mother of his two boys, the grandmother who is a little dotty, and the two sons–the older boy, who has already taken work in the mines with his father, and 11-year-old Billy, who is still mourning and feeling the terrible loss of his mom.

The production opens with all the miners onstage. These are big, strong guys! I instantly felt the heft and resolve of the miners (dressed and looking exactly as I imagine a miner would be in 1984, complete with head gear and light by Costumer Designer Kathleen Geldard) while dancing and, yes, singing–roughly when needed, sweetly and beautifully at other times. The orchestra of eight musicians, though hidden above the huge proscenium of the stage and led by Tom Vendafreddo, swings and shines. And then there’s Matthew Gardiner’s unbelievably nuanced direction of all the disparate parts of this intimate production. But I’m way ahead of myself…

Liam Redford (Billy Elliot) in “Billy Elliot” at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The person you are going to this production to see is Billy himself and he is simply marvelous in every way. He is coltish in the beginning stages of being sucked into a ballet class he didn’t ask to be involved in, led by the indefatigable and hilariously perfect-for-this-role Nancy Anderson, as Mrs. Wilkinson. With her brusque, but knowing coaching Billy shows us the hard work and talent it takes to master the steps and attitudes of these disciplined individuals. It turns out he is a dance prodigy possibly from the family connection of his dance-loving grandparents. We see Billy when he’s 11 starting out. Our Billy was Liam Redford and he’s got it all. But, knowing Signature Theatre’s superb casting work, the other Billy, Owen Tabaka, is equally as capable and talented.

Owen Tabaka (Billy Elliot), Chris Genebach (Dad) and the ensemble of “Billy Elliot” at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Space prohibits me from talking at length about the strong performances of each member of this marvelous cast, but I do want to mention the crotchety and yet winsome-still, Grandma, portrayed by the genius of Catherine Flye. Though hers is not a large role, she imbues it with such wily life and steadiness that it takes your breath away. And Billy’s father, played to perfection by Chris Genebach, plus Billy’s gruff boxing teacher, Dan Manning, as well as Older Billy, played and danced to perfection by Grant Richards, all left indelible performances in my mind, and remember, I’ve seen this show many times, including on Broadway. When Billy literally flies during his big second act number–big wow!

You simply must see this—they had me at the music of Elton John (“The Lion King”, “Aida” and 250 million records sold worldwide)–but then I experienced this superb cast—enjoy!

Ticket and Performance Information: Now through January 6 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Tickets $85-$106. Sigtheatre.org or 703-820-9771.

Billy Elliot the Musical, music by Elton John, book and lyrics by Lee Hall. Directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner. Music direction, Tom Vendafreddo; set, Jason Sherwood; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lighting, Amanda Zieve; sound, Ryan Hickey; production stage manager, Kerry Epstein; fight choreography, Casey Kaleba; “Angry Dance” tap choreography, Mark Orsborn; dialects, Rex Daugherty; orchestrations, Martin Koch. With Liam Redford, Owen Tabaka, Nancy Anderson, Chris Genebach, Catherine Flye, Sean Watkinson, Dan Manning, Jacob Thomas Anderson, Olivia McMahon, Vivian Poe, Declan Fennell, Malcolm Fuller, Stephawn P. Stephens, Jamie Eacker, Kurt Boehm, Crystal Mosser, Harrison Smith, Vincent Kempski, Grant Richards, Sean Fri, Franco Cabanas, Harry MacInnis, Kedren Spencer, Solomon Parker III.