REVIEW

Billy Elliot a heartwarming crowd-pleaser for a cold city

It’s no secret that Billy Elliot the Musical pirouettes into Winnipeg with fairly lofty expectations. So it probably comes as a relief to many that the Royal MTC’s production of Billy Elliot is a charming, charged, utter crowd-pleaser.

Tony Award-winning musical makes an impressive local debut with RMTC production

The RMTC's production of Billy Elliot is a high-flying crowd-pleaser. (Robert Tinker)

It's no secret that Billy Elliot the Musical pirouettes into Winnipeg with fairly lofty expectations.

The 2005 musical is based on an Oscar-nominated movie, won a stack of Tony Awards on Broadway and Olivier Awards in London, and features music by Sir Elton John and a book and lyrics by Lee Hall — an Oscar nominee for writing the original movie.
Billy Elliot the Musical is a charming, charged, utter crowd-pleaser. It runs at the Royal MTC's John Hirsch Mainstage until Feb. 6. 1:04

So it probably comes as a relief to many that the Royal MTC's lavish production of Billy Elliot is a charming, charged, utter crowd-pleaser.

Like the movie it's based on, Billy Elliot the Musical follows its title character — a 12-year-old boy growing up in a northern English coal mining town during the bitter miners' strike of 1984. 

Billy's gruff dad (a suitably marshmallow-centred Cory Wojcik, who gives a sensitive and honest performance) wants Billy to be a boxer. But Billy stumbles — quite literally — into the world of ballet, where he proves to be a prodigy. 

Billy Elliot doesn't shy away from the politics of its setting, but remains a heartwarming story of hope. (Robert Tinker)
And as he struggles to gain his father's acceptance, he also becomes the only source of hope in a village dying in Margaret Thatcher's England.

This isn't a musical that shies away from that political setting — indeed, songs like the Act 2 opener Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher and the miners' song Once We Were Kings highlight the harsh politics of the era.

But it's primarily a story of hope, and in its energetic dance numbers and upbeat, melodic, ear-pleasing tunes, it conveys that message fiercely.

Ethan Ribeiro delivers an impressively physical performance in the title role of RMTC's Billy Elliot. (Robert Tinker)
Of course, much of the success of any Billy Elliot production rests on the young shoulders of its lead actor. For the RMTC production, those duties fall to 15-year-old Eamon Stocks and 14-year-old Ethan Ribeiro, both from Ontario, who played the role at the opening night performance I saw (the two alternate in the physically demanding role).

And Ribeiro played the role with gusto, acing everything from furiously fast tap routines to graceful balletic numbers with a performance that would be impressive from a dancer twice his age.

He's backed by an excellent supporting cast of two dozen, which draws heavily from Winnipeg's musical theatre talent pool and speaks highly of its quality. 

In addition to Wojcik, local favourite Jennifer Lyon is outstanding as Mrs. Wilkinson, the amusingly world-weary ballet teacher who first recognizes Billy's talent. 

Other standout performances come from locals Debbie Maslowsky as Billy's slightly senile grandmother, Markian Tarasiuk as Billy's rage-filled older brother Tony, Carson Nattrass as the somewhat dim boxing coach George, and Paula Potosky, who delivers a warm and tender turn as Billy's late mother.

Jennifer Lyon (centre) is among the standout local performers in the Billy Elliot supporting cast. (Robert Tinker)
They're joined by a seven-member ensemble of ballet girls (two ensembles, actually, who also alternate between performances) — quirky, gawky and absolutely delightful on opening night.

Director Steven Schipper's production is snappy and well-tuned. Tracey Flye's choreography is similarly sharp and crisp, with nary a misplaced step in the musical's many demanding and impressive dance numbers.

And the nine-member orchestra under music director Joseph Tritt performs Sir Elton's engaging music admirably.

Billy Elliot's not flawless — at 160 minutes (with intermission), it's a bit bloated (I'd argue we don't really need a musical number dedicated to Grandma's backstory). 

Ethan Ribeiro (centre) with the charming chorus of ballet girls in RMTC's Billy Elliot. (Robert Tinker)
And its ending is certainly more ambiguous than that of the film it's based on, which isn't necessarily a bad thing — but it is a fairly weak ending to a show that packs as much punch as Billy Elliot.

But these are minor qualms. What matters is that Billy Elliot is heartwarming, though not sappy, and fully entertaining.

As Billy himself provides a light in the dark for a coal mining town, Billy Elliott provides some welcome warmth to a cold Prairie city in January.

Billy Elliot the Musical runs at the Royal MTC's John Hirsch Mainstage until Feb. 6.

About the Author

Joff Schmidt

CBC theatre reviewer

Joff Schmidt is a copy editor for CBC Manitoba. Since 2005, he's also been CBC Manitoba's theatre critic on radio and online. He majored in theatre at the U of M, and performed in many university and Fringe festival productions along the way (ranging from terrible to pretty good, according to the reviews). Find him on Twitter @JoffSchmidt.

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