Review: RMTC’s Billy Elliot

 

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Billy Elliot runs at the John Hirsch Mainstage until Feb 6. Image courtesy RMTC.ca.

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.

 

This just in: Cats returning to Broadway

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Cats is making a triumphant return after 16 years. Image courtesy PBS.org.

In an unsurprising twist of events, Andrew Lloyd Webber doesn’t have enough money, apparently, and Cats will be making its revival debut this summer.

The feline phenomenon originally ran on Broadway from October 1982 to September 2000 at the Winter Garden Theatre. It will return, beginning previews in July, to the Neil Simon Theatre. This will mean Webber has three shows on Broadway at the same time (in addition to Phantom and School of Rock). It made over $366 million and won seven Tony awards, including Best Musical.

Please, lord, don’t let Love Never Dies (the awful sequel to Phantom) be next.

The Winner Takes It All: Jukebox Musicals and the Broadway Economy

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At least Pierce Brosnan wasn’t involved this time. Image courtesy Hart-Theatre.org.

There’s nothing more disappointing then when you’re talking to someone who says they like musicals, and then they tell you their favourite is Mamma Mia!.

 

No offense, Benny and Björn, but Mamma was likely only popular because of the ABBA songs in it. (Further proof? Let’s not forget about Chess: The Musical, also penned by B&B, which ran for not quite two months). Would anyone really be interested in watching a show about a girl who doesn’t know who her father is, then mentally distresses her mother when she invites all three to her wedding? That doesn’t sound like a feel-good toe-tapper out-of-context to me.

This is the problem I have with jukebox musicals. Instead of crafting new songs to tell a specific story, old songs are used to tell someone else’s story (yes, that was a Chess pun). Some of them don’t run very long — like Million Dollar Quartet, which ran for just about a year — but Mamma ran for almost fourteen years. Jersey Boys has been running since 2005. What is it about these recycled soundtracks that can make them so popular?

It’s likely the familiar tunes that keep drawing people. The husbands trudging into the theatre know that even if they hate the story and the costume, at least they’ll know the songs. It’s not that I hate these shows — is there a human on this green earth that can resist “Dancing Queen?” — but it bothers me that this is what makes the tourists buy tickets and what contributes to keeping the musical economy from falling on its face. According to BroadwayWorld grossesMamma made over $600 million during its run and never really declined in popularity. Totally original shows, like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, ran for only about a year and a half, and despite its star power (with Dexter star Michael C. Hall and Glee‘s Darren Criss taking over the title role), the show never recovered after Neil Patrick Harris left his Tony-winning part.

So, the next time you stand in front of the TKTS booth, trying to decide which matinee should fill your afternoon, ask yourself if you could go home and listen to the soundtrack and get the same experience. If so, I suggest you see another show.

You Want a Resolution? I Want a Revelation: New Year, New Shows

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It’s gonna be a happy new year. The cast of the Rent movie, via BroadwayWorld.

It’s the new year, and although I should likely be working on curving my habit of eating an entire bag of Mini Eggs in one sitting, my resolution should come as a surprise to no one: see more theatre.

I was fortunate enough to see productions of many shows last year. Half of them were Broadway Across Canada/America tours, but all of the shows I saw were excellent. This year, I’ve decided to see more regional shows hosted by the many theatre companies in Winnipeg.

My father once told me that if I was going to spend money, I should spend it on experiences rather than things. And then I started a very expensive musical theatre hobby. But I’ve never regretted a single cent I’ve spent on those experiences — whether it’s $10 on a fringe show or over $100 on Broadway orchestra tickets, I feel fulfilled every time I leave a theatre. No other form of entertainment can make me feel like live theatre does. So why do I seem to reserve my love for big-budget shows?

This year, I’m turning over a new program, so to speak. I just bought my ticket for the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s production of Billy Elliot, which starts next week and I could not be more excited for Winnipeg Studio Theatre’s Heathers: The Musical starting in March (the off-Broadway show based on the ’80s cult classic). For the first time in three years (I used to spend my Julys elsewhere), I’ll be able to go back to the Winnipeg Fringe Festival and see our homegrown talent doing what they do best.

So keep an eye out for more local theatre reviews and talk in the coming year, dear readers. But don’t you worry: I’m always ready to talk about Hamilton.