A sage, aging woman plans for and faces what she is sure is her imminent death. A callow youth’s growing obsession with ballet risks tearing his close-knit family apart. In this week’s column I consider two shows with two dissimilar protagonists, though both are grappling with fractured family dynamics.
Billy Elliot The Musical, the long-running, award-winning musical, is generating plenty of electricity (a featured song) in its current Village Theatre production. Easily one of the finest British musicals ever, its lineage can be traced to the superb non-musical film written by Lee Hall. Hall adapted his script for the musical. and he and Sir Elton John wrote the well-crafted character-driven songs. This production is helmed with passion by Village’s veteran Artistic Director Steve Tomkins (at the height of his skills) and choreographed by Katy Tabb with exuberance and an attention to dance technique rare to shows so heavily focused on child performers. In its first local production it can stand shoulder to shoulder, and in some ways rises above the national tour version seen at the Paramount a few seasons back.
Billy Elliot is an 11-year-old Northern England lad who inadvertently ends up hanging around a second-rate, ballet class for pre-teen girls and rapidly finds it a miraculous escape from a rather solitary existence in a motherless home save from a half-batty Grandma. Billy’s mine-worker Dad and elder brother become embroiled in a national strike (based on fact) against the tactics of then British Prime Minister Margaret “Maggie” Thatcher. The story cross-cuts between the toll the lengthy strike takes on the Elliot’s and Billy’s ballet tutorials with the encouraging, salty-tongued dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson who senses Billy’s great potential. His Dad and brother Tony, embroiled in the strike, try to prevent him becoming a dancer, and in their eyes, a “poof.” Billy is not gay (though his ebulliently flamboyant, cross-dressing pal Michael seems three sashays down the Yellow Brick Road already). His amazing talent, championed by Mrs. Wilkinson, ultimately leads to a climactic audition for the Royal Ballet, which affects the course of Billy’s future.
At the performance I attended, Vincent Bennett (one of four Billy’s in the production) gave an earnest, winning, sweetly sung, and very-well danced account of himself in this large central role. His Angry Dance is all you could hope for. Eric Polani Jensen, as Billy’s Dad, knew just how to slowly open up his heart to embrace Billy’s passion. Mari Nelson was brassy, sassy, and vibrantly voiced as Mrs. Wilkinson, making her Born to Boogie number a showpiece. Bryan Kinder, as Billy’s cross-dressing chum Michael, (he shares the role with Quinn Liebling) is a born ham. He and Bennett really go to town, festooned in frocks for Expressing Yourself. Faye B Summers mines every laugh from Grandma’s ravings, then invests dramatic honesty and intensity into her solo turn on Grandma’s Song that I hadn’t gotten when seeing the it performed previously. Mallory King is a comforting, wistful presence as the visage of Billy’s Mum, and sing’s Dear Billy tenderly.
Billy’s angry older brother Tony is given convincing gravitas and swagger by Matthew Kacergis. Other perennial Village triple-threats such as Greg McCormick Allen, Eric Gratton, Greg Stone, Adam Somers, Matthew Posner, and Doug Fahl all contribute mightily as the other miners and various other featured characters. Rounding out the cast are Jasmine Harrick, amusing as young Debbie Wilkinson, and scene stealing tyke Tristan Calkins, aptly cast as small boy. A very special mention is surely due to Scott Brateng, for his stellar ballet work as Older Billy in the show-piece Swan Lake sequence with Bennett.
The ensemble delivers fine vocals on the big numbers, whether somber (The Stars Look Down, Once We Were Kings) or comic (Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher), under the musical direction of Tim Symons, who also leads the solid orchestra.
Bill Forrester as Set Designer, Cynthia Savage as Costume Designer, Alex Berry as Lighting Designer, and Brent Warwick as Sound Designer each set a high standard of excellence fitting this mega-ton show onto the relatively intimate Village stage.
In Billy Elliot, Village Theatre has a show with all the trimmings to close out its 2015-2016 season, and sets a high standard to live up to for the season to come.
Billy Elliot The Musical runs through July 3, 2016 at Village’s Francis J. Gaudette Theatre at 303 Front St. N. in Issaquah, and the continues July 8-31 at Everett P.A. Center, 2410 Wetmore Avenue in Everett. For tickets and further info go online to villagetheatre.org.
The Realization of Emily Linder is the kind of intelligently written, somewhat-old fashioned comedy-drama that becomes something extra special with a just right actress in the title role. Taproot Theatre’s current mounting of this recent play by Richard Strand has exactly that in Laura Kenny, the moon-faced character actress who has amused and moved audiences for years, but rarely in a starring role like Emily. Astute director Nathan Kessler-Jeffrey wisely realizes this show takes place all around planet Emily, and positions an able supporting cast around Ms. Kenny to orbit around her. Wise move!
Emily, a widowed, retired, University French professor has come to the “realization” that she knows the exact day that she will pass away. She gathers her two daughters, people pleaser Margaret and coldly efficient Janet to her side to inform them of her imminent demise and give each explicit instructions and assignments to fulfill prior to her death. Emily, for the most part, is behind the wheel steering her own poignant journey in her life’s final mission, but her new caregiver Jennifer diverts her off course and places her in uncharted territory on the road to other possible realizations.
Kenny makes the stout Emily a sturdy, acerbic soul whose physical and mental acuities are slipping. She is unbending, and insists on doing things beyond her body’s ability to accommodate them. She has stopped reading and the only DVD she will watch is the classic 60’s western spoof Cat Ballou. Kenny nails this set in her ways, doomsayer of a woman with comic expertise, and the life experience of one who has dealt with aging parents herself. She makes Emily a pain to her daughters, but never alienates the audience’s affection for her. This a savory star turn from a veteran performer whose joy to move up from supporting actress status is palpable.
Charity Parenzini is ideal as Margaret, making her both annoying yet sympathetic as the daughter whose efforts never seem to satisfy or please Emily. As Janet, Helen Harvester brings humor and steely drive to her role. Annelih GH Hamilton is engaging and warm as Jennifer, the caregiver who starts to melt Emily’s frosty disposition. Director Kessler-Jeffrey cohesively builds on the ensemble’s dynamics, despite the script obviously centering on Mama Emily.
Top nods on the technical end to scenic designer Richard Lorig and prop master Sam Vance for making every stick of furniture and furnishing look exactly like one’s retired parents would live in, especially the big comfy looking recliner chairs. Sarah Burch Gordon’s costume designs neatly encapsulate the sensibility and style of the four women.
The Realization of Emily Linder has (in a good sense) the glow and dynamics of an old Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation (not the icky-sweet stuff Hallmark Cable hoists on us now). Besides, with Laura Kenny in the driver’s seat, any residual sugar is tempered with a solid dash of whisky and wry (pun intended).
The Realization of Emily Linder at Taproot Theatre, 204 N 85th St, runs through June 11, 2016. Tickets are available online and through Taproot Theatre’s Box Office by calling 206-781-9707 or by visiting the Box Office located at the front of the theatre.