Pictured: Robert J. Hingula and Ben Renfrow. Photo by J. Robert Schraeder/Spinning Tree Theatre.
By Bec Pennington
1984 was an iconic year for many reasons, but it is infamous in Great Britain for one of the most intense and bitter strikes ever to occur in the nation. The national coal mining union clashed with the government agency that regulated the mines over impending closures. Massive job cuts were poised to decimate small communities built around the collieries. It doesn’t readily present itself as a backdrop to a musical about ballet, but this is the setting for BILLY ELLIOT, a successful bit of entertainment scored by Elton John.
BILLY is a funny type of fairy tale about a boy growing up in County Durham who discovers his talent for dance at the local community center during the height of the strike. His father and brother, both miners participating in the strike, are tough, masculine stereotypes of the region, devoted to the cause of their fellow workers. Billy’s mother has died, and his grandmother seems to be losing her rational mind. When Billy becomes interested in ballet, the backlash from the family is harsh, but in the end, their resistance to both Billy and the changes all around them has to come to an end.
For all its saccharine predictability, BILLY ELLIOT manages to squeeze some meaning from the plot and develop its characters with surprising depth. Wry wittiness permeates much of the numbers and dialog, which are peppered as well with casual obscenities. For Spinning Tree Theatre’s production, Robert J. Hingula portrays Dad with both toughness and earnest love for his children as he struggles to handle providing for the household as a grieving single father. Grandma, played very believably by Marilyn Lynch, serves mostly as comic relief but then boldly owns her song reflecting on her life choices and what could have been. Julie Shaw’s Mrs. Wilkinson is a bit calloused, seemingly surprised by her own motivated response to the talent she sees in Billy. Shaw embraces this role beautifully and imbues the right amount of complexity it needs. Timothy Houston is a great big brother Tony who is youthfully passionate in the union’s fight. All in the ensemble are vocally skilled and energetic. The cast’s eleven children are electric and engaged; every one of them is at home on the stage. Stealing the show – as well he should – is Ben Renfrow, whose delightful Billy is believably talented yet not exceptionally skilled in dance, which is in keeping with his character. Mr. Renfrow’s sweet voice never falters throughout the two and a half hour show and he delivers a natural, endearing performance.
Michael Grayman-Parkhurst keeps the direction simple and well-paced. Andrew Grayman-Parkhurst’s choreography is very well designed, only with one fault being an angry tap number set on a too-slick surface that inhibits the actor’s ability to fully develop the emotion of the scene (it’d be nice to see this scene in soft shoe). Of special note is the Billy Band live musical accompaniment, and some nice touches from Lighting Designer, Justin Dudzik.
Spinning Tree’s BILLY doesn’t ask much of us as far as an audience. It’s a comfortable night out, just for the fun of it. We are told to embrace our true selves and believe in each other, but mostly we are encouraged to enjoy the show, and this performance makes that easy.
“Billy Elliot” runs through April 20. For more information visit spinningtreetheatre.com.