The Column Online



Music by Elton John
Book and Lyrics by Lee Hall

The Firehouse Theatre

Directed by Derek Whitener
Musical Direction by Rebecca Lowrey
Assistant Director: Larry Borero
Choreographers: Larry Borero, Michael Anthony Sylvester, Beth Lipton, Eddie Floresca, Amy Cave, Brandon Harvey, Christina Kudlicki Hoth and Linda Kay Leonard
Stage Manager: Maggie Hunter
Costume Designer: Alexandra Eddins
Lighting Designer: Scott Davis
Set Designer: Kevin Brown
Properties Designer: Kristin M. Burgess
Fight Choreographer: Jason Leyva
Technical Director: Jason Leyva
Production Manager: Rebecca Lowrey

Billy: Westin Brown
Michael: Matthew Vinson
Dad: Ben Phillips
Tony: Austin Parker
George: Kris Allen
Mrs. Wilkinson: Andi Allen
Grandma: Judy Keith
Debbie: Sydney Noelle Pitts
Dead Mum: Kate Dressler
Mr. Braithwaite: Andrew Friedrich
Tall Boy: Kyler Valentine
Small Boy: Andrew Cave Lesley

Ballet Girls: Kathryn Baxter, Taylor Baxter, Carly Black, Bella Saucer Ehring, Katie Kelley, Lauren Scott

Ensemble: Ellen Eberhardt Ensemble/Mrs. Wilkinson Understudy: Hilary Allen Big Davey/Ensemble: Rodney Morris Older Billy/Ensemble: Ryan C. Machen Posh Dad/Ensemble: Evan Anderson Ensemble: Benjamin Bratcher, Adam Henley, Ernest Hernandez, Aaron Jakaboski, Ania Lyons, Jonathan McInnis

Reviewed Performance: 7/29/2016

Reviewed by Holly Reed, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Just as its lead character Billy Elliot grows from timidly tiptoeing through dance class to aggressively owning the stage at the Royal School of Ballet, Billy Elliot the Musical gently draws in an audience then passionately calls them to pick a side. Beginning to end, the show screams solidarity and separation, individuality and intimacy.

I have been impressed in the past at the high bar set by Firehouse Theatre. For such a small venue, the measure of talent is extraordinary. The dance and vocal skill of the cast was great, but the commitment to character and sincerity in acting was exceedingly great. That is what takes an audience past simply viewing and critiquing a performance to being an emotionally involved participant—breathing the London air, feeling the chill of the unheated boxing gym, anticipating our own wardrobe selection from Michael’s trunk, and wincing at Grandma’s green pasties. We long for Billy’s success—to help the town, to validate his dreams, to prove that special somebodies can sprout from nowhere.

Billy Elliot was played to perfection by Westin Brown, a student at Fort Worth’s Academy of Fine Arts. His strong acting skills and flawless dance technique were only surpassed by his precious wit and innocent nature. His accent was equally excellent (I was left to wonder if it was his native tongue) and the rapport he had with each actor on stage was palpable. Westin’s beautiful high tenor voice added to his charm, and from the first moment, the audience was in love. Even though he didn’t take up boxing, we were all in his corner from the get-go. One of my favorite scenes is Billy’s first official dance class with Mrs. Wilkinson. He’s paid up and ready to go, but instead of receiving instruction he is thrust into a sink-or-swim situation with the rest of the class. “What do I do?” he asks with no response, jostled to the side by the gaggle of girls. “What do I DO?” Respectful but louder he pleads again, but again is lost in the commotion. “WHAT DO I DO?” he cries in desperation, but to no avail. Resigned, he follows along best he can, and finds his own way. Suddenly a surprising discovery of confidence begins to emerge— cautiously but persistently. My heart was captured in that scene, only to be locked away for good as he read the letter from his Mum. Maybe because I’m a mom of an 11-year-old boy as well. My heartstrings were all in knots.

Countering Westin’s quietness and timidity, his best friend Michael (played by Matthew Vinson) is unashamedly sassy, but sensitive and kind nonetheless. Their tap duet “Expressing Yourself” (wonderfully choreographed by multiple COLUMN Award winner Brandon Harvey) is one of the highlights of the show. Matthew’s voice was clear and articulate, his tap skills exceptional. He undoubtedly enjoyed his role and played it to the hilt—while dressed himself to the nines. His character was a lighthearted distraction from the heaviness of the story—in both the thematic elements of economic oppression and political division as well as in Billy’s own personal demons and obstacles.

Billy’s dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson was wonderfully portrayed by theatre veteran Andi Allen. As the mother-figure in the story, she filled in the gaps where Billy was emotionally crippled from his broken home. There were many precious and sincere moments of tenderness between them. Andi also provided significant comic relief and a sense of the time and culture to the story with her wit and sass and well-used colloquialisms. Her accent fluctuated and was not as strong as Westin’s—but as a favorite character in the show, that was easily overlooked. She reminded me of Mrs. Hannigan in Annie—but with a heart.

Judy Keith was also delightful in her role as Grandma, a matriarch losing her battle with dementia while clinging to self-reliance and stashing pasties. Her tongue-in-cheek rendition of “Grandma’s Song” gave us a glimpse into the reality of marriage in that day —the silent pleas of an overused and unloved wife and the coping mechanisms that made life tolerable.

Ben Phillips as Dad and Austin Parker as Billy’s brother Tony had strong performances. The war within and between them was evident, as pressure from both outside and inside the home was mounting. Their individual conflict led them on their own personal journeys, which eventually led them back to one another. Ben had a wonderful moment in “Deep Into the Ground” as his pain in the loss of his wife was laid bare. As Tony, Austin embraced anger often and consistently led the call to solidarity, providing a strong catalyst to the mounting conflict.

The ensemble of miners and bobbies successfully established the weight of conflict and separation in the classes of society. Their burly and robust singing and dancing reinforced their characters well. They were equally matched by high-pitched squeals from light-footed preteen ballet dancers who provided the countercultural ideal of new possibilities among the dying success of the blue collar working class. Sir Elton John’s signature pop vernacular wasn’t overdone in the music styling, but was very tasteful and appropriate for the various groups represented. From the clumsy grit of the miners to the sterile metronome of English bobbies, the prissy acrobatics of preteen ballet to the raucous pulse of bold, young crossdressers, the music was witty, clever, and a wonderful medley of mood and color. The music was all produced live, delivered from a small band perched above the set on stage. The audience can see players from about waist up, along with music stand lights and instruments. However, I never found this distracting and actually enjoyed watching their engagement with the music—especially keyboardist/ music director Rebecca Lowery, whose intensity and passion was felt as she led her band of players.

I especially appreciate the set design by Kevin Brown. The use of opening small sections of curtains along the back wall for various focal points worked well in the small theater. The descent of the miners into the mine elevator in the very last scene was extremely clever and well done. I saw it coming and winced at the possibility of a cheesy Muppet like ending to an otherwise flawless production. I was pleasantly surprised at how well it was executed and applaud the men whose commitment to character made that possible.

The only scene that felt like it needed further work was “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher.” It was very much a pause in the story that could probably be cut and the audience would be none the wiser. The Firehouse Theatre in Farmers Branch consistency enlists top-notch talent, leadership, and production staff, and this run of Billy Elliot the Musical is no exception. This is a story of perseverance and tenacity, of overcoming internal and external obstacles, and of appreciating the life and love around us—even if it seems a little unconventional. You will most definitely laugh and most probably cry and quite possibly leave a little more confident in that one thing that makes you—you.

Billy Elliot the Musical
Firehouse Theatre
Playing July 28–August 14, 2016
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