Billy Elliot a heartwarming crowd-pleaser for a cold city
Tony Award-winning musical makes an impressive local debut with RMTC production
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.