Be advised from the outset: This is an unconventional review that must be put into the proper context.
To cut to the chase: Less than two months ago, Music Theater Works inaugurated its new home at Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts with an absolutely brilliant, supremely polished production of “Ragtime.”
Then, this past Thursday, on the same stage, it opened its second production, “Billy Elliot - The Musical,” the dance-filled show with music by Elton John and a book and lyrics by Lee Hall. But from almost the very first note it was apparent that something was very wrong with the sound system and miking, and much of the dialogue and singing, all along the way, was either inaudible or garbled. In fact, the only clear sound came from the orchestra, seated in the pit and led by Michael McBride.
The problem persisted throughout much of the two-and-a-half-hour show, and was a great disservice to both the performers, the large audience and the show itself. No formal announcement or apology was made at intermission to even acknowledge there was a problem. And all I can hope is that for the remainder of the show’s short run the sound issue has been fixed.
All that said, Jake Siswick, the show’s 13-year-old star, and an actor-dancer of impressive skill and a remarkably natural stage presence, was able to grab the audience’s heart from start to finish. And the other young performers in the cast carried on, in true professional style, as if nothing were wrong. The adults in the cast did their best not to be distracted, but a good deal was lost in the storytelling all along the way, and the erratic sound system was an obvious distraction, as was the roll-up door that forms a central element of the set.
“Billy Elliot” (directed by Kyle A. Dougan, Music Theater Work’s artistic director) is set in a mining town in northern England during the bitter Coal Miners’ Strike of 1984 — an action that was set in motion when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced she would be privatizing the coal industry, a move that would unquestionably result in the loss of thousands of jobs. But the situation was more complicated than that, for while the miners made the decision to go out on strike and confront the riot police who were called in to control the strikers, others in the tight-knit community eventually decided it was better to go back to work and get their paychecks, if only for the moment.
Amid all this, Billy longs for his Mum (Lydia Burke), who died some time earlier, left him a deeply moving letter, and, at crucial moments, “visits” him in his imagination. He is being raised by his macho dad, Jackie (Matt Miles, who comes into his own in the second act), who wants him to take up boxing, as well as by his fiery older brother, Tony (Brandon Muchaud), who already works in the mines, and by his Grandma (Caron Buinis) who mostly lives in the past, but loves dance.
It is the bitter but insightful Mrs. Wilkerson (Casiena Raether) — a neighborhood dance teacher who never made it as a dancer herself — who notices Billy’s innate gift the moment he joins her class. The class full of giggly young girls, includes her sassy little daughter, Debbie (Everleigh Murphy, who easily lights up the stage). And while she comes to believe he has innate talent, and she wants to prepare him for an audition at the prestigious Royal Ballet School in London, both she and Billy are initially rebuffed by the boy’s father, who fears he might end up gay (he is not, although his little friend, Michael, played by Kai Edgar, might well be). In addition, the expense involved in sending him to London with his dad would be too great. It’s a problem that is solved in a most touching communal way.
Once at the audition, Billy makes some unfortunate moves that have nothing to do with dance. But when he is asked why he wants to dance he responds with the show’s most emblematic song, “Electricity,” and he lights up the stage, not so much with the highly polished technique he will develop in training, but with a sense of the true spark of divine fire that is inside him.
Sadly, a good many of the show’s best lines and lyrics were lost because of the malfunctioning sound system. But the dancing — much of it in tap shoes — spoke loudly and clearly. And to the credit of choreographer Clayton Cross, while the kids danced like amateurs when in class, the finale showed that they are truly well-trained and can knock a big number out of the park.
As for Siswick, a slender fellow of palpable emotional intelligence, he is a wonderfully subtle and convincing actor, and his dancing ideally captures Billy Elliot’s evolution from a shy boy averse to violence to a burgeoning young artist with the ability to transcend his hard-edged environment.
“Billy Elliot” runs through Jan. 2 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.
For tickets visit MusicTheaterWorks.com or call (847) 673-6300.
Announced for its 2022 season are productions of “La Cage aux Folles”; “Disney’s The Little Mermaid”; “Zorro” (a new musical); “Camelot”; and Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.”
Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic