The art of the dance is enjoying a popularity not experienced since the 1950s when members of its royal family were Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse and Ann Miller. TV's "Dancing with the Stars" shares some of the credit — along with musical theater's "Billy Elliot."
Now ensconced in the Segerstrom Center for the Arts through April 28, this Tony Award-winning best musical of 2010, with music by Elton John, has arrived with a strident crescendo of sight and sound, blending a sore spot in English history with the fictional tale of a boy in fervent pursuit of his dream.
It takes four young actors, alternating in performances, to convey the story of a lad from a lower-class mining family, a boxing student who drops into a ballet class by chance and uses his newfound dancing skills to punch his ticket out of a grimy existence. If they're all as accomplished as Mitchell Tobin, who starred in Wednesday's opening, this show will run a long, long time.
"Billy Elliot" is set in 1984, when Britain's coal miners went on a year-long strike to protest the economic policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Billy is the younger son of a widower father forced into poverty by the union action just when the boy needs money for a major dance audition.
Young Tobin is the show's centerpiece, but the heart and soul of this touring production are Rich Hebert, who plays the tough-but-tender father, and Janet Dickinson, the unbending dance instructor who sets Billy on a new career path.
Hebert is particularly effective in his character's change of heart, gradually coming to grips and ultimately fiercely (if awkwardly) supporting his son's dancing dream. Dickinson brings a steely demeanor to her role, yet her belief in Billy and her support of him are strongly rendered.
Tobin, who has packed nine years of dance training into his 12 years of life, excels in his presentation both on his feet and from his heart. He hits his peak early in the second act when paired in a fantasy scene with his older self — the superbly accomplished Maximilien A. Baud — for a powerful dance duet, during which the boy literally defies gravity to soar high above the stage to illustrate the heights his character will reach.
Patti Perkins swipes a scene or two as Billy's elderly but feisty grandmother. Cullen R. Titmas is strong as his older brother, clinging to his union identity, while young Jake Kitchin has some comical moments in a superfluous role as Billy's older, cross-dressing chum. Molly Garner touches the heart as the spirit of Billy's long-departed mother.
On the eve of the real Thatcher's funeral, the production eviscerates the former prime minister in the opening number of the second act, "Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher," in which a hideous effigy of Thatcher rises above the set in a grotesque backhanded tribute.
Director Stephen Daldry and choreographer Peter Darling have gone all out on this electrifying production, though the prolonged sequence in which several lights from a darkened stage are fixed on the audience can be a bit much.
"Billy Elliot" picked up 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, back in 2009-10, and this touring production packs an emotional as well as artistic wallop at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.
If You Go
What: "Billy Elliot"
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays until April 28
Cost: Start at $20