All Things Entertaining and Cultural
SHORT ‘BILLY ELLIOT’ UPDATE: It’s always gratifying for a critic to see that his opinions hold during a second viewing of a production. That said, two points needs to be made. Media’s staging of “Billy Elliot’ is a double cast in three parts. The good news is both casts acquit themselves equally well. Gunar Daniels is an endearing Billy. Relatively small, he projects a naivety that is good for the part and gives insight into both Billy’ s struggles and the cynical traits he retains from the rough mining town where he lives. Daniels conveys true vulnerability, and you root for his Billy to advance and succeed. For a 13-year-old doing his first lead in a professional theater, he shows a lot of poise. At a whole 14, J.D. Triolo, by contrast, is a seasoned veteran whose annual schedule is as busy as Ben Dibble’s or Mary Martello’s. Triolo has savvy, and dance moves, but he endows his character, Michael, with easy, stoic, charm that lets you see why Michael and Billy may not want to hit each at a boxing lesson and shows fine understanding of Michael when he says no one will notice him walking through his Northern England town wearing a tutu in the middle of winter. While always a total trooper, Triolo displays wider-ranging dancing chops that are impressive. Alli Buchanan makes Debbie, a girl in Billy’s dance class and the daughter of the teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, the right kind of irritating in a good performance. The other point has to do with the angle of Media stage. Sitting in the center section of the house gives Geoffrey Goldberg’s choreography more cohesion. Some dances are as disruptive as ever, but they have more pattern than can be seen from the side, even the side aisle. Also, sitting center allowed me to see Anne Connors’s reaction to Billy’s pirouettes and talent for balance that was hidden when I watched from house left. Connors continues to be the bright light of Goldberg’s production.
The two halves of “Billy,” or, more accurately put, the three quarters and one quarter of it, integrate successfully at some dramatic moments. These invariably involve nine-year-old Billy Elliot being one who might emerge from a depressed Northern England mining town to become a ballet dancer of magnitude.
It is Billy’s personal story that garners our attention in “Billy Elliot.” Writer Lee Hall, as he moved Billy’s saga from the printed page to film and, then, the musical stage, had to realize the plight of striking miners during Britain’s Thatcher era (1979-1990) would be secondary and, at best, tangential, to the more intimate, engaging, and uplifting journey of a boy who has the attitude, habits, logic, and language of the working class yet holds the potential to star in a realm that involves arduous discipline and performing before appreciative audiences as opposed to yielding the tons of anthracite and barely being noticed.
No one is knocking mining, the labor movement, or the worries and sacrifices of people on strike, but Hall and “Billy Elliot’s” composer, Elton John, did not put the miners’ struggle on equal footing with Billy’s story. Nor could they. Concentrating on a strike, unless the strike was the entire story, would be cut-and-dried. Drama derives from what is different, not from the common lot, and “Billy Elliot” is canned, mediocre, and as expected when the miners take focus but acquires substance and soars with electricity when Billy is on stage. Domestic scenes in Billy’s home, and the boy’s relationships outside of dance, particularly with his chum, Michael, provide the change of pace and leavening “Billy Elliot” needs to keep from being a one-note affair. The labor issue, sad to say, isn’t explored deeply or completely enough to elicit interest or pathos. It just gets in the way.
Hall and John must have realized that. Compare the tunes and the lyrics of the miners’ songs with the numbers Billy , his father, his grandmother, dance teacher, and Michael present. You’ll hear heart and humor, instead of clichéd cant, in the latter. Only the satiric second act opener, “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher,” has near the spirit, wit, bite, or entertaining value of the songs that express personal conditions and feelings. Numbers like “Solidarity” and “The Stars Look Down” might sound bold and portentous, but they are trite claptrap that display more mawkish facility than soul or muscle.
The conundrum for a theater producing “Billy Elliot,” and the director staging it, is how to use the labor issues to form a defining context and gritty background for Billy’s emergence from truant boxer to Royal Ballet School candidate without giving it undue, let alone equal, emphasis. The dilemma is exacerbated by so many who work in the theater being decidedly left-wing and given to thinking labor always the moral high ground and needs to have its grievances heard. They may feel a commitment or obligation to making the miners’ situation more serious than a backdrop that adds the hard times and hardscrabble ways of a people to Billy’s milieu. Hall, though his lyrics for the labor songs tend to be sentimental and simplistic, can’t let go of his regard for the miners’ cause, so he sets traps that can lure a director into overdoing the miners’ passages in “Billy Elliot.” Difficult thought it might be, directors mounting “Billy Elliot” have to try to be politically neutral and let the miners’ scenes be matter of-fact. Yes, the miners’ point of view, since it is part of the context, should prevail enough to make an audience sympathetic enough to the hardships the strikers face, but it should be a subtle and incidental part of “Billy’s” overall world rather than a rival for attention to Billy, his dancing, and his potential.
You can imagine how tricky it is to find this balance, of find the right emphasis and tone for the labor struggle in this musical. Geoffrey Goldberg, directing “Billy Elliot” for the Media Theatre, eventually focuses his production intensely on Billy. Family and personal issues take on more and more intensity and give “Billy Elliot” the heart and deep emotional core it needs. “Eventually” is the important word here. Strident labor sequences at the top and in the middle of the first act in Goldberg’s production almost scuttle his later, finer efforts and render them for naught.
It isn’t that Goldberg pushes the politics of the labor scenes or makes them seem outsized. It’s that, as dance and as a dramatic statement, the robust action on stage is amorphous and has no definition. It tells you something intense, and vital to people’s lives is going on, but it doesn’t make you care about it or feel any particular umbrage, support, or fellowship with the striking mines. These opening sequences are loud, stomping, and muscular but they neither acquaint the audience with the subtleties and privations of the miners’ existence nor put a framework on “Billy Elliot.” They seem gratuitously militant, harsh and chaotic for their own sake. They may intended to stir up some emotion but, if so, they don’t accomplish their purpose. There’s little to watch or hear, so at the crucial beginning of the production, you lose interest and wait for something more substantive to happen. Ten seconds in, you take for granted there’s some kind of labor action and acknowledge such without becoming involved or having any feeling about the miners, even after seeing curtain-up news reports about the nationalization of Britain’s mines following World War II and Maggie Thatcher’s economically motivated decision to close superfluous mines in 1983. Ten minutes in, boots are still banging, lines of police are having some confrontations with the strikers, and you wonder if anything of consequence is going to start, anything that will explain more quietly and more engagingly what we’re seeing.
The good news is it will and does. Once some miners roost in the Elliot kitchen for some toast and tea before a day of taunting scabs and picketing, the human side of the miners’ situation gets some expression. We no longer see faceless hordes gnashing teeth, making strong punching movements with their arms, and stomp, stomp, stomping those feet and see men who are struggling through a human event that requires their resolve, fortitude, and loyalty.
Hall and John create the problem in a way because “The Stars Look Down” has the rhythmic drive of a tough anthem but lyrics that are pseudo-poetic, predictable and not demanding of one’s intention. On the Media stage, it looks as if riot is afoot. There is a story is Goldberg’s choreography, but everything moves too fast and percussively to absorb or appreciate it. A town is in turmoil, that’s clear. Current and future lifestyles are in jeopardy. OK. Show us. The Media production tends to drives the opening scenes down our throats. Individual audience members’ reaction to labor unions or Mrs. Thatcher don’t matter. It’s not about taking sides. You’re bound to lean towards the miners. They’re the ones you’ll meet. Billy Elliot is one of them. Or his father and brother are. The point is about clarity and setting a tone for a larger, more personal story. The first ten minutes of the Media’s “Billy Elliot” threaten to lose us and our attention. We also tend to tune out during the confused commotion of a later scene in which the miners and police clash while Billy runs around aimlessly in the middle of the action. The miners monotonously sing John’s “Solidarity” while they and the police intersect. The big productions numbers are choreographed well. They just don’t register dramatically or move the central story. Once again, “chaos” is the word that comes to mind. It just isn’t orchestrated in a way that makes it scary, powerful, angering, or theatrically useful.
Scenes involving Billy are a different cornucopia of riches altogether.
Goldberg has assembled a superb cast that blends Media regulars like Anne Connors, Susan Wefel, and Kelly Briggs, with welcome new faces, such as Zach Wobensmith, and a potential regular-to-be, Garrison Carpenter (who previously appeared in “Ghost” and “Tommy”). Connors is particularly remarkable in the role of Billy’s dance teacher, Sandra Wilkinson. She shows depth and control that catapults this performance above all Connors has ever done on local and national stages. The children playing Billy and Michael on opening night, Brandon Ranalli and Nathan Esser — The parts are double cast. — have professional polish and immediately win your affection.
There’s the dichotomy in action for you. Ensemble scenes depicting the labor conflict muddy the waters. When Goldberg’s production concentrates on Billy, even in scenes that involves the miners and their strike meetings, an intelligent richness prevails. Connors, Ranalli, Wobensmith, and company play with a lot of heart and bring sincerity and warmth to the conflict that counts, Billy being exceptional within a town that has been built generation after generation on one vocation and within a family that doesn’t know how to cope with particular form of genius. Wobensmith’s Jackie Elliot is particularly perplexed about what to do for a son that has a gift so far afield from anything he knows or has encountered. Especially since Billy, in all other ways besides his dancing, is the same scrappy, scruffy kid that’s been growing up, cookie-cutter, in British coal country for centuries. Wobensmith’s quiet, mature, emotionally steady, and manly performance as Jackie matches the honesty and texture Connors gives Mrs. Wilkinson and gives any dramatic encounter featuring either of these characters special intensity that heightens the dramatic stakes and emotion in “Billy Elliot.”
Billy’s basic story has a time-honored paradigm. Superior talent is found where it is least expected. The possessor of that talent has to work hard and be pushed mercilessly to hone and refine it. The mentor doing the pushing has to be relentless and honest to the point of demoralizing the talented one altogether. Resistance that has little to do with the talent at hand has to come from a conservative or stubborn corner. Obstacles need to be overcome, and doubters won over. The talented one must have a setback. The mentor must lost interest or act as if he/she has. The work, sweat, rebuke, self-doubt, self-flagellation, determination, and native ability must be tested and, in a comedy, pay off.
Hall never veers from this outline. Yet, “Billy Elliot” touches us in a way that goes beyond standard response to a standard plot.
The reason is the ordinariness and the vulnerability of the boy.
The miners’ strike doesn’t supply the emotional underpinnings for “Billy Elliot.” His near-orphan status as the child of a deceased mother and distractedly attentive father make him sympathetic, as does how much he has to do to fend for himself and how typically boylike he is in going about it.
Billy’s specialness is in his sweetness. He’s sensitive to his grandmother when no one else is. He doesn’t enjoy boxing because he doesn’t want to hit people, particularly the equally reluctant Michael. He stays for the dance class because he’s given a direction, and he, being nine doesn’t realize he doesn’t have to follow it to the letter. He worries about things like what his father will think, being late, disappointing adults, and being a nuisance. He, being young, has given up things for the strike without feeling the deprivation because it has been his norm. Billy is a town kid who, like most kids, accepts the values, habits, and mores of his town. He is not a child looking to be exceptional or to have a phenomenal career in a glamorous profession. He’s a confused kid trying to get by without being smacked or reprimanded. He respects and fears adults. He’d rather ride bikes or hack around with Michael than anything, including improve his obvious gift for dance.
Billy Elliot wins our hearts because he is Everykid. He is not ambitious, proud, conceited, or obnoxious. Even after he is aware of and has confidence in his talent. He’s the anonymous lad who suddenly attracts attention because of someone no one would expect, let alone suspect. He’s also the little boy whose prize possession is a letter from his late mother he was not supposed to open until he was age 18, a direction with which he was too impatient to comply.
Billy is the quintessential candidate for our sympathy. He’s worthy of all he receives, and he’s grateful and unassuming about it. He elicits emotions waiting to be wrung. To see his buffeted or hurt or wounded in any way causes ire and restlessness in the audience of a magnitude Hall would have liked to engender for the strikers and doesn’t/
In all five performances of “Billy Elliot” I’ve seen, the production has been lucky to have a Billy that stimulates such deep feelings. Brandon Ranalli at the Media joins the ranks with his natural, unflashy, heartfelt, and heart-winning performance as Billy. Ranalli is not perfect, and that’s his charm. He comes across as so real, as a lad who is striving, against some odds, to wonderful and special. You root for Ranalli’s Billy, not because the script leads you to, but because Ranalli is so open and honest in his role. He’s a typical look who goes about his town with a look that says, “Ay, I’m going to catch it now” but rarely deserves correction let alone sternness. He’s one who cooperates because he is afraid not to. His father, brother, dance teacher, and boxing coach are too commanding for him to defy, let alone disobey. Billy finds his favor, and his vocation, in conforming.
Ranalli plays that reality well.
So well, he and Susan Wefel, as his grandfather, rescue Goldberg’s production from the theatrical scrap heap in a scene that provides cohesion and specificity where before there was only random movement and expositional blather.
Ranalli immediately, as if congenitally, shows a regard for Wefel’s addled elder who seems complaining and crotchety but only wants some kind attention and a pasty she’s hidden but forgot where. Billy’s father is solicitous and polite to the old woman but hasn’t have the time or inclination to cater to her. (You get the impression she’s his late wife’s parent.) Billy’s brother, Tony, one of the more vocal and activist of the strikers, doesn’t notice her at all.
Ranalli and Wefel establish the situation in the Elliot home. They’re two people, one young, one old, who are on their own although youth and a touch of senility indicate they need help from the more assured Jackie and Tony.
Wefel is canny enough to respond to Ranalli’s warmth and attention. Meanwhile, Billy has clinched our regard and sympathy. He has established, beyond being the title character, that he is the real focus, and his affection towards his grandmother, in the midst of frustration and confusion about being on time for boxing class, cements our regard for him.
Kelly Briggs shores up the realistic thrust of Goldberg’s production by a being a crusty, dismissive boxing instructor who realizes Billy and Michael are hopeless pugilistically but tries to cuff them into compliance before surrendering to reality and settling for just collecting his 50 pence fee for his trouble.
Briggs leaves, and Connors arrives to up the stakes and reinforce the drama and texture of the production.
Her Sandra Wilkinson is an everyday woman who scratches out some living amid her town’s strike by charging 50 pence her head to mold some unpromising girls into as tidy a dance troupe as they will let her. One of the first caustic phrases out of her mouth is to encourage her eight or so charges that they don’t have to rush learning their routine since, knowing what she is up against, she starts teaching it months before their recital.
Mrs. Wilkinson is not your artistic type. There’s nothing fluttery or coddling about her. Teaching dance is the end to an economic means, and she is willing to be bored for an hour every Saturday to create some income and give the town girls something to occupy them.
Connors is necessary as a simultaneously driving and stabilizing force because one of Goldberg’s jokes is to have the girls in her class screaming at the top of their lungs, the way kids to when they are let loose in a gym after hours of reading, writing, and arithmetic.
The problem is the joke backfires. It’s too ostentatious. The girls seem more like nuisances than energetic, enthusiastic pupils who can’t wait to execute their plies and pirouettes. It would have been better for them to be chatty or pokey upon entrance. The shrieks scream “gimmick” and are more self-indulgent than witty.
You crave the sardonic discipline Connors’s Wilkinson provides after that.
Billy become part of the ballet class because Briggs’s boxing coach hands him keys to give to Mrs. Wilkinson personally, and Billy feels honor-bound to do just that.
Hall’s script demands Billy be thwarted in transferring the keys, unable to just to drop them on the piano for Mrs. Wilkinson or her accompanist, Mr. Braithwaite, to see, and end up following the girls through their steps to get Mrs. Wilkinson’s attention.
All of this takes place, but once again, Goldberg overloads the jokes and the stage business. Thank heaven for the absolute core of reality Connors provides, or Goldberg would direct the scene out of proportion and lose the essence of the scene to thinking too hard, and too unnecessarily about how to make it allegedly more entertaining.
Boxing gloves and Billy’s motions are the culprits.
Billy is wearing the gloves when Briggs’s coach puts the keys in the palm of one of them. He continues to wear the other, so he has no way to hold the keys and dangle them in front of Mrs. Wilkinson for her notice. The gambit should be comic. You can see what Goldberg might be thinking. But it turns out to be tedious and off-putting. It has no logic. Even Billy, except for a director telling the actor playing him not to, would remove the glove and find a way to show Mrs. Wilkinson the keys.
His attempts to show them to her in the palm of the glove leads to him following her around the floor and running among the girls as he works with mounting angst to get her attention.
Again, you can see Goldberg’s idea, and even why it could be funny, but, again, all backfires. The sequence is too obviously and unrealistically staged.
Besides, it doesn’t accomplish the basic, essential goal critical to the passage. This is the time when Mrs. Wilkinson is supposed to notice Billy’s natural aptitude for dance.
The way Goldberg stages the sequence, it can’t fulfill that objective.
Billy is so intent on giving Mrs. Wilkinson the keys, he blindly runs after her. He doesn’t really join the class or follow the pattern of the lesson. He is not is rhythm, does none of the steps, and just looks like a frustrated little boy who has one job to do before he can leave and can’t find the opportunity to do it.
Goldberg doesn’t enhance Billy’s plight. He self-consciously thwarts it. And clumsily. Ranalli and Connors help save face, Ranalli by looking so pained and exasperated as Billy, Connors by pretending not to notice the little brat that is shadowing her moves and trying to tell her something. The two of them create reality. The scene, as staged, is just annoying. The boxing gloves might be a good idea for 15 seconds but then they have to go. It would be more telling if Billy was dangling the keys in plain sight, and Connors’s Wilkinson studiously ignored them.
Most of all, we have to see, along with Mrs. Wilkinson, that Billy has talent as a dancer. How can we do that when he never really dances and stays at a run that doesn’t have any relationship to the music being played.
Billy, as he is directed at the Media, is a resourceless, illogical little boy who can’t get a simple task done and doesn’t have the native gumption to say, “Sod it,” drop the keys on the floor and run.
No, he trails Mrs. Wilkinson for the entire lesson, gets hounded by her for her 50p, and sheepishly says he’ll pay her next week.
The boxing glove gambit wears thin fast, but the greater oversight is not letting us see any dance chops from Billy.
Come on! What is the crux of this musical?
During subsequent lessons, there is still precious little evidence that Billy dances well, let alone well enough to warrant Mrs. Wilkinson thinking he rates a place at London’s Royal Ballet School. By the time the imperative moment arrives that Jackie comes to the community center to find son taking dance instead of boxing, we have no inkling about how Mrs. Wilkinson can argue with Jackie that Billy is special and can have a life vastly different from the routine of a miners’ town.
Goldberg squanders several sequences when we might see Billy’s aptitude, withholding any sign of prodigy until the scene when Mrs. Wilkinson is teaching the pirouette, and specifically the eye technique that prevents one from becoming dizzy or wandering off his/her stage mark while spinning.
One has no doubt Ranalli will fulfill Billy’s destiny at some point during the series of lessons he takes. It’s almost absurd that it takes so many scenes for him to do it.
Billy’s entry into Mrs. Wilkinson’s class is, to my mind, mishandled. But while the logic of the musical’s key situation is being totally muddled, Goldberg’s show stays entertaining otherwise. The flow and overall enjoyment of the show is preserved in spite of the debacle of Billy being any better than his spiritless classmates until the last possible minute.
Again, credit Anne Connors and Susan Wefel. Elton John is overrated as a songwriter in general and vastly overrated as a composer for the stage, but he can provide a catchy or touching tune here and there. “Billy Elliot” is by far his best theater score, and one of the best songs in it is “Shine,” which follows through several of Billy’s lessons. Connors, besides being perfect as the brittle, no-nonsense Mrs. Wilkinson, does a wonderful job of leading and varying “Shine.” She shows her song-and-dance aplomb long before we see any of the same from Billy. John’s song and Connors’s performance of it save the day. They dominate your attention and keep the show going smoothly even as you watch in wonder waiting for Billy to dance in a way that isn’t clunky and imitative. Connors, and the girls dancing with Billy, grab your focus. Goldberg is shrewd enough to have Mrs. Wilkinson’s girls dance well and catch on to her lessons. Solid music theater wins the day even as crucial context is being crushed. Watching to see when Billy excels remains an occupation but it’s one of several because a lot is happening on the Media stage that you can appreciate and that demonstrates show biz savvy. Connors and the girls –Anna Grace Rosenthal, Larissa Culbertson, Bridget Henry, Jolie Jaffe, Brooke McCarthy, Kennedy Ndiaye, Kristiana Ranalli, and Violet Wiley — assure that. Billy’s scenes become Mrs. Wilkinson’s, but it’s all right because Connors is so strong, versatile, and believable in her role.
Wefel helps provide atmosphere in the Media production by a lovely rendition of Billy’s grandmother’s song about her life with Billy’s grandfather, “We’d Go Dancing.” The song is bathetic. Wefel’s grandmother talks about domestic violence, drunkenness, and a tough existence is this number, but the negative is only in the text. The tune is sweet, and the purpose of the song is to be winsome and elegiac. Wefel can sing about abuse, but her tone is wistful and her memory is pleasant. The actress finds all of the contrast in this tricky number but, happily, delivers it without irony, letting Hall’s lyric provide the irony while she recalls the grander parts of a 33-year rough-and-tumble marriage.
The “Solidarity” number I’ve mentioned also comes in the midst of Billy’s lessons, specifically after Jackie has forbid them from continuing out of worry about people will think about a boy who prefers ballet to boxing.
“Solidarity” depicts the clash of the miners and police who are just as willing to instigate incidents as they are to deter them. Goldberg makes a nice show of the officers’ attitudes in the beginning of this number, when he has them lined across the stage tapping their billy clubs in their palms as if they’re itching to crack some skulls with them.
The actual confrontation scene is not so successful. As with the opening, you don’t know where to look or see any story being advance. Even Billy running through the encounter doesn’t cause a reaction. The purpose of the “Solidarity” sequence gets lost in the helter-skelter approach it.
The clash with police is where Billy goes to let off steam about being prohibited from dance classes and about the conditions in his town. For calmer relief, he turns to his friend, Michael who asks Billy straight out if he’s afraid taking dance will make people think he’s a poofter (homosexual).
Meanwhile, Michael opens a few closets of his own by sharing with Billy his penchant for dressing in women’s clothes, specifically his mother’s and sister’s.
This sequence is one of the most exuberant in Goldberg’s production.
Brandon Ranalli is a fine Billy, but in his part, he has to keep his emotions somewhat under wraps. Ranalli never seems self-conscious or studied in his part, but he does play Billy’s shyness and keeps Billy’s modesty and ordinariness a consistent part of his performance.
Nathan Esser does not. You can’t tell he’s acting for a minute. His Michael is a force of nature, totally relaxed, totally committed to all Michael has to do, and totally winning in his mixture of nonchalance as an actor and enthusiasm as a character.
Esser’s Michael is an apologetic cross-dresser who could cheer anyone with the way he fancies girl’s togs in a playful boyish way. Ranalli and Esser bring joy to the Media when they do their duet, “Expressing Yourself,” a wonderful invitation to indulge in what pleases you and doesn’t hurt others.
Next to Esser, you can see Ranalli’s dance training, but Esser holds his line and is an apt partner to Billy. He plays Michael without a hint of apology or indication that he is not the character he is playing. He provides energy that not only buoys Goldberg’s production but is an inspiration for Billy as he faces the possibility of having to forgo dance. Billy, in turn, doesn’t judge Michael and even enjoys the naughtiness of his fetish.
The “Expressing Yourself” is a good scene that accents the best Media’s “Billy Elliot” has to offer.
It also marks the moment Goldberg’s production goes into totally smooth sailing. Ensemble numbers, except for the successful, cleverly conceived “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher,” are finished, and the real, intense drama is about to take place.
Billy reveals the contents of his late mother’s letter, giving the always reliable, always radiant Elisa Matthews the chance to take center stage in a beautifully sentimental but touching sequence.
Most of all, Billy’s father feels guilt over taking something away that Billy might prize and use to better his lot compared with the tribulations of a miner.
Zach Wobensmith is marvelous in his ability to soften toward Billy’s situation while retaining the hard, mature, but humorless expression he carries throughout the musical as Jackie. The “Maggie Thatcher” number, and a scene that shows the miners’ support of Billy, even as they have a grievance against Jackie, stand as the best uses of the labor thread in “Billy Elliot.” “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher” is the right form of funny, and Goldberg doesn’t overdo it or make it more political than intended. The scene in the union hall tugs at your heart, not only because of Wobensmith’s dignified but appreciative expression as Jackie but because of Carl Nathaniel Smith’s resolve as a scab to participate in Billy’s welfare even if he has to risk disdain or injury to do it. The moral dilemma Smith’s presence raises is real and is handled well by Goldberg and his ensemble.
The second of act of Media’s “Billy Elliot” has none of the rough edges or miscues of the first. It is taut and intense.
Goldberg, Ranalli, and Wobensmith can concentrate on Billy’s immediate needs. Connors can reinforce the strength. Garrison Carpenter provides some tense, logical, and dramatic honesty as Tony.
Ranalli, doing almost a a freestyle dance, aces Billy’s 11 o’clock number, “Electricity,” showing feeling in his delivery of the lyric and impressive aplomb in his dancing. Goldberg choreographs a complicated routine that requires acrobatic and ballet skill. It is the right dance to show off a young man’s talent. Goldberg and Ranalli rate congratulation for making the performance so stirring.
As “Billy Elliot” comes towards its close, you realize what a moving, ultimately satisfying production Goldberg and his company have assembled. Hankies may be required for those, I among them, easily responsive to wonderful things happening to children, especially a child that needs and rates the attention Brandon Ranalli makes you want for Billy.
My favorite surprise in this production is the range and discipline of Anne Connors.
I have to be frank. I was nervous when I heard Connors was cast and worried she would affect my enjoyment of the show. How thrilling to be able to report my anxiety was wrong, wrong, wrong. Wrongitty wrong wrong.
Connors was superb, as good a Sandra Wilkinson as ever took the stage. In earlier roles at the Media, I dound the actress crude and strident. Not here. Her Mrs. Wilkinson was fine tuned. She was contained within herself and gained size only when provoked by ignorance and always within the scope of her character.
Connors caught that Mrs. Wilkinson would have the same working class edge as her townsmates even if she worked in the arts. She stresses Sandra’s everyday qualities and her quickness of temper and mouth.
Everything Connors does is in the right proportion for the moment. Her presence galvanizes the first act of Goldberg’s production. When anything goes awry, Connors’s presence restores pace, clarity, and involvement. Her Mrs. Wilkinson is a wonderful achievement, one to be remembered and savored.
Zach Wobensmith is rocklike as Jackie Elliot. His cheeks look like they are carved into rocklike stillness. This is a man who doesn’t have time for softness or bull. Wobensmith’s Jackie is man’s man who wears his honor and conviction in his face, in his walk, and in his actions as a miner, a townsman, and a father. Wobensmith can relax Jackie’s attitude and show understanding to his younger son and the administrators at the Royal Ballet, but life has been too rough on him to expect a smile or anything more than a begrudging nod of approval when all goes right.
I admired Wobensmith’s consistency and his ability to give Jackie shades while his demeanor remained constant.
Garrison Carpenter is a realistic actor who made you believe it was Tony Elliot on the Media stage and not an actor playing. Carpenter used his physicality well in portraying the temperamental Tony, one of the more vocal and incendiary striking miners. Carpenter showed leadership in scenes with fellow strikers and brought extra tension to the confrontation between Jackie and Tony over Billy and the course of the strike.
Kelly Briggs proved one of the theories I have among him. He was a reliable Horace Vandergelder and Herbie in “Hello, Dolly” and “Gypsy” at the Media, but he was a brilliant Thernardier in “Les Misérables” there. In “Billy Elliot,” Briggs plays a series of character parts, including one man who is a miner and a commenter on Billy’s future in addition to being the boxing instructor. He does them all with adroitness that makes each portrayal interesting while keeping them distinct. Briggs illuminates the key traits in his characters. I worry that standard roles don’t challenge his creativity as much more nuanced roles do.
J.P. Dunphy stood out among the ensemble and did well with a cameo of Mrs. Wilkinson’s husband. Carl Nathaniel Smith is another who made the most of a small part as he showed the humility and abashed expression of the union scab while maintaining the character’s dignity.
Matthew Miller’s set often seemed awkward, as it placed the orchestra in an oddly placed rectangular pit situated mid-stage. The pit takes you out of the play sometimes as you worry about Ranalli or another actor falling in. The placement also interrupted the natural flow of some scenes and forced others damagingly upstage. “Solidarity” may have acquired impact if it was performed in the audience’s face rather from a seeming distance. Katie Yamaguchi’s costumes caught the garish ugliness of England’s hinterland garb.
“Billy Elliot” runs through Sunday, January 3, at the Media Theatre, 104 E. State Street, in Media, Pa. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday (and Sunday, December 27), 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. (Check for schedule variations around Christmas.) Tickets are $42 with discount and premium options available. They can be obtained by calling 610-891-0100 or by visiting www.mediatheatre.org.