Young star shines in wct’s ‘billy elliot’
By Marilyn jozwik
published oct. 27, 2018
While the backdrop of “Billy Elliot” – the coal miners’ strike of 1984 in England – wasn’t as big of a news story in the U.S. as in the U.K., its notion of solidarity resonates today, as does the fictional story of a young lad following his dreams and realizing his potential.
Waukesha Civic Theatre certainly had a challenge in finding just such a youngster for its presentation of “Billy Elliot.” And they struck gold with the outstanding performance of Ryan Vanselow.
While Vanselow doesn’t have the precision and power of an expert dancer, his performance is nonetheless remarkable, imbuing his character with a wide range of emotions delivered with a convincing accent and youthful believability. Plus, his dancing proved graceful and well-executed.
The story is heavy with men portraying miners and policemen who frequently clash. Billy’s mom has died and Billy lives with his grandma, as well as his father and brother Tony, who work in the mines and team up with the strikers. Billy has been enrolled in boxing classes, but finds himself more suited for the girls’ dance class, taught by Sandra Wilkinson, much to the dismay of his father, brother and others in the community.
Billy persists with the encouragement of Wilkinson; his mother, who appears in his thoughts; his grandmother; and his young dancer friend Michael. In the meantime, Billy’s dad and brother continue to strike and engage in bloody battles with police.
Billy’s dad has a change of heart when he watches his son dance, and realizes his talent when he talks to Wilkinson. In order to fund Billy’s audition with the Royal Ballet of London, he decides to break with the strikers and return to work, causing a rift with Tony. The final scenes reveal the fate of both the miners and Billy.
The show, directed by Mark E. Schuster, clearly articulates its themes – the solidarity of the miners through hard times, Billy’s father wanting the best for his family and Billy keeping his dream alive despite opposition. Much of that is expressed in Elton John’s music, while Lee Hall did the book and lyrics.
On opening night, a few scenes were a little sluggish and awkward. Yet, there were more than a few shining moments.
Vanselow wins the audience immediately, portraying Billy as just a kid who happens to have an amazing talent. He interacts wonderfully with all the other performers and confidently performs several long, challenging dance sequences, including the Act I ending “Angry Dance” and the emotionally powerful “Electricity” in Act 2. His still-soprano voice is bright and light as air, filled with sincerity.
As Billy’s dad, Corey Patrick is marvelous as he fights through all kinds of emotions and situations, first teaming with his older son in solidarity with the striking miners, dealing with his feelings about his younger son’s dancing, then coming to grips with both his sons’ viewpoints. Patrick has excelled in musical comedy, including his turn as Cogsworth in Sunset’s “Beauty and the Beast,” and he again shows his fine tenor voice in “Deep into the Ground.”
Liam Thomas as Billy’s friend Michael absolutely stole the show with some amazing dance moves in “Expressing Yourself” scene, in which Michael displays a penchant for ladies’ dresses. The dancing dresses enhanced the scene nicely making it an opening night favorite.
I liked Caroline Miller-Bayer’s look and attitude for the ballet teacher, but would have liked to have seen her belt out her tunes a little more--like “Born to Boogie,” which got lost under the recorded accompaniment. Ben Bartos does a nice job as Billy’s brother Tony and handles a believable fight scene with his dad well.
Maggie Wirth delivers another show-stopping performance as Billy’s grandma in “Grandma’s Song,” wherein she describes her late abusive husband and love of dance. Wirth transforms from a slightly doughty grandma into a spirited, vibrant young woman, recounting her past with verve. The scene is lit to convey the reflective mood and well-executed by the dancing men with chairs.
In a small, but important, role, Gwen Ter Haar gives Billy’s mother a load of kindness and compassion, lending her sweet voice to “The Letter,” creating lovely harmony with Miller-Bayer’s Mrs. Wilkinson.
A couple of other small, but noteworthy, performances include Tammy Vrba’s as the Audition Lady and her son Alex Vrba’s, who does a very sophisticated ballet as the older Billy in the “Dream Ballet.” Tammy Vrba always adds something special to her performances.
Choreographer Ceci Scalish directs the cast through some stylish moves, especially the men as miners and police wielding billy clubs, shields, chairs and other props. These were some challenging scenes, mostly executed well.
Music director Yeng Parman-Thao elicits strong sounds for the ensemble numbers of mostly men, while the girls’ ballet cast sings with sweet on-pitch purity. As mentioned before, some of the soloists needed to beef up their sound to compete with the instrumental music.
This show has 25 scenes and lots of set changes, which can be annoying. Yet, scenic designer Michael Talaska keeps the distractions to a minimum with handsome set pieces and efficient movement.
If you go
Who: Waukesha Civic Theatre
What: “Billy Elliot”
When: Through Nov. 11
Where: 264 W. Main St., Waukesha
Info/Tickets: 262-547-0708l wwwwaukeshacivictheatre.org