Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

October 3, 2019

REVIEW: The Goodspeed, Billy Elliot

The Goodspeed, East Haddam, CT
through November 24, 2019
by R.E. Smith

Liam Vincent Hutt as Billy Elliot, Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The home of the American Musical is currently staging a show set in 1980’s North Country England, which just goes to prove that some dreams and struggles truly are universal.

In this case, 11-year-old Billy is growing up in a rough and tumble coal-mining town, living with his widowed father, angry older brother and unfocused grandmother. The miners are going on strike, his best friend is slightly quirky, and Billy has no interest in the boxing lessons he’s supposed to take. But when he stumbles into a “girls” ballet class the young “bairn” discovers that when he dances he feels “Electricity” and is given a chance to change his future.

Adapted from the 2000 movie, by original screenwriter Lee Hall (also lyrics), with music by Sir Elton John, the story transforms the Goodspeed into a Union hall with an ever-changing mine shaft set designed by Walt Spangler, utilizing the performers to move parts around and, at times hold pieces up. The staging is quite inventive. The choreography by Marc Kimelman, too, is exciting and original and diverse. The ensemble dance numbers are especially effective, like “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher”, when it seems every person in the theatre is in motion. The entire show has a crackling energy that feels apparent even in the calmer moments, highlighting the theme of conflicts, large and small, that fill the story.

Sean Hayden as “Dad” navigates through grief, anger, confusion and acceptance, making him very sympathetic yet at times quite funny. Michelle Aravena, as the dance teacher accomplishes the feat of being a rather sullen, downtrodden showstopper as she exhorts her pupils to “Shine”. Every member of the ensemble cast is first rate and given nice moments to highlight them.

And then there’s Billy himself, played at this performance by Liam Vincent Hutt. In addition to ballet, he has to “angry tap,” join in a kick-line and give a little of the old razzle-dazzle. But he also has to act and sing and he does very well indeed on all counts. His Billy is not wise beyond his years, he is young and flawed and confused and Hutt conveys all this in a very natural way, without resorting to “cute kid” tactics. His duets with best friend, teacher and mother all serve to showcase a very natural, giving performer.

There is a flaw in the book: Grandma, played by Barbara Marineau, quickly becomes an audience favorite and has an important, defining relationship with Billy, but after her delightful “Grandma’s Song”, she practically disappears until the final scene. Her absence is a bit distracting.

There is some salty, albeit British profanity, and talk of British class warfare, but the themes of solidarity, friendship, family and acceptance will resonate with theatergoers young and old. As befits a show about an 11-year-old boy, Billy Elliot bursts with boundless energy and an eagerness to please that is irresistible.