This is spoiler territory. Proceed with caution.
The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre presented Billy Elliot for its annual musical spectacular this year, and although the production house did as much as they could with the material, the story would’ve fallen flat without the talent of the cast and the dazzling sets.
Ethan Ribeiro, who played Billy the night I was there, charmed the audience every time he was on the stage. From taking care of his grandma at home, to boxing lessons, to testing lipsticks with his crossdressing friend Michael, he had us all in his corner from the first scene. With “Electricity,” what he sings at his audition, he cements himself into the hearts of both the audience and his father.
Manitoba theatre vet Jennifer Lyon commanded the stage, as usual, as Billy’s dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson. Her spandex-wearing, cigarette-smoking portrayal of the demanding ballet teacher desperate for a star was loveable and ferocious at the same time – exactly what the character needs.
The real breakthrough performance didn’t come until the second act. Markian Tarasiuk, playing Billy’s brother Tony, was heart-stoppingly realistic and heartbreaking as the protester who needed to win the fight. Unafraid to fight his father and scream at his little brother, he doesn’t stop believing in the cause until it’s over.
The sets and costumes were incredible – most notably, the dark canvas dotted with light for the opening number, “The Stars Look Down,” which reprised when the miners go back to work, and in “Expressing Yourself,” featuring giant dancing dresses.
My main problem was not anything specific to RMTC’s production: my problems were with the structural foundation of the show.
This show is all about Billy wanting something: wanting to dance, wanting his mother back, wanting his father’s support. But Billy never sings an “I want” song (what’s an “I want” song? See my blog post on Howard Ashman). It’s not until almost the end of the first act when he physically says “I want to dance.” Billy doesn’t even seem to like dancing that much when he starts going to class. He doesn’t seem to want to leave his small mining town, and he has no motivation until halfway through. His goals need to be clear far sooner.
Outside of Billy’s father and brother, miners on the picket line, the strike barely seems to impact our protagonist. He’s able to pay for his dance classes and seems relatively unaffected by the strike until it comes finding money for his audition in London – which is granted to him by an anonymous miner who gives him hundreds of dollars for no reason. Unlike in Cabaret, where the Kit Kat Klub and most of the members inside are swept up in the Holocaust, Billy could survive without the background of the strike.
The show also leaves me grasping at straws at the end for any hint of what happens to any of the characters – Billy gets into the school, the strike ends and the defeated miners go back to work, but there’s no hint at what happens to them. Does Billy succeed? Does he become a famous dancer? Does he fail out and have to go back to the deserted town?
If you have the opportunity to scoop up the last few remaining tickets, you should. Billy is a fun show with a “don’t dream it, be it” message, and RMTC has their finest actors lined up to deliever a stellar, emotion-driven dance show.