Thoughts on Billy Elliot – The Musical

What: Billy Elliot – the Musical
Where: Regent Theatre, Melbourne

Performances run until April 19, 2020
For more information, please visit https://billyelliotthemusical.com.au/

Billy Elliot makes its triumphant return to Melbourne, after a successful run in 2008/2009 respectively at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Now playing at the newly-renovated Regent Theatre until April 19, whose lavish and gaudy decor hosts the perfect setting for this award-winning, highly-celebrated and inspirational musical.

Based on the 2000 film of the same name, the story centres around the struggles of young Billy’s desire to become a ballet dancer, alongside the community strife caused by the 1984-1985 UK miners’ strike in County Durham in North East England. The musical challenges the ideas of traditional gender roles, unity and staying true to one’s self.

Considering, essentially, holding the show in his young hands in his theatre debut, the stand out is River Mardesic in the title role. Another clear audience favourite is Oscar Mulcahy as Billy’s cross-dressing friend, Michael. Ella Tebbutt, Debbie, also gives an impressive performance. And the junior ensemble holds their own against the adult cast.

Seasoned actor Justin Smith shines as Billy’s single Dad. Drew Livingston gives his all as Billy’s head-strong older brother, Tony. Vivien Davies provides laughs as Billy’s grandma, but seems to disappear mid-show. Lisa Sontag is stern yet compassionate as Billy’s dance teacher, Mrs Wilkinson.

I should note, however, the child actors playing Billy, Michael and Debbie respectively, do change depending on the date and time of the performance. And much like Billy finding his passion, being cast for the roles has no doubt changed and inspired their own lives.

Like most visceral musicals, the choreography is the show’s greatest strength.

Peter Darling’s use of mixing traditional ballet moves with contemporary dance moves (especially during the comedic Expressing Yourself and Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher to the powerful Angry Dance and Electricity) will stay with you years later. Although lyrics by Lee Hall and music by Elton John provide strong story-telling, they’re ultimately somewhat forgettable.

Very rarely does a musical take you on such an emotional journey from beginning to end. One moment you’re laughing as colourful oversized dresses dance alongside Billy and Michael in drag to the heart-stopping dramatic and chilling imagery of the workers returning to the mines after the strike is lost – a scene greatly enhanced by Rick Fisher’s lighting design.

The musical, however, is a victim of its time in some ways. Ask a millennial who Margaret Thatcher is or what they know about the 1984-85 miners’ strike, and many would look at your dumbfounded. This, as well as trying to decipher the North East England dialect called ‘Geordie’, while won’t make your enjoyment of the musical any less, it may leave you scratching your heads in parts. Especially if, like me, you’re left trying to figure out if you didn’t understand something due to the accents, Geordie lingo or own stupidity. My original programme included a dialect guide which helped (this updated 2020 does not), yet both do include helpful historical information inside.

If I were to say one criticism, it came from the echoes of doof doof thump thump music echoing in the background. Although I suspect it came from the Plaza Ballroom next door (as they had a function on), and I’m sure it’s not a regular occurrence (I attended the February 20th preview), it does make me wonder if part of the renovation should have included better sound insulation or if city noise regulations need to change. While this shouldn’t affect your decisions to attend nor is it a reflection of the show itself, it was distracting, off-putting and well worth mentioning.

Although not my favourite musical of all time (I’ve seen 69 – and counting), I have seen it twice now and that’s a testament to its brilliancy. There is quite a bit of swearing, smoking, violence and references to domestic violence and police brutality if you’re considering taking younger children. However, it’s a dance-heavy, inspiring and heart-warming musical with incredible choreography, relatable themes and talented performers.

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