Porchlight Music Theatre kicks off its 2017/2018 season in its new Gold Coast home at the Ruth Page Center for Arts. The venue has undergone a major transformation. Although the seating feels cozy, the stage is massive. The 30+ crew of ballerinas, police officers and coal miners easily dance, fight and flow on and off this stage. Despite the depth of the space, under the skillful direction of Brenda Didier, the action is pushed to the edge. A line of performers are boldly singing a few feet away from the audience. The intimacy tears down the us/them facade. We are on the front lines with the coal miners. We are one. “Solidarity forever” is the mantra for all. The Ruth Page Center has created a unique space for personal closeness during a theatrical spectacle. The experience is one-of-a-kind.
And the acoustics are ooh-la-la. In their new home, this might be the best Porchlight has ever sounded from a technical standpoint. No outside noises. The microphones all work. And the band is present but not over-powering. The seven piece orchestra is backstage behind sliding panels skillfully led by Linda Madonia (conductor/pianist).
Fans of the film by Lee Hall and musical version by Elton John and Lee Hall will thoroughly enjoy this rendition. Newbies to the show will be a little stunned by the cursing. This is a blue-collar-gritty musical. Despite the story being focused on a young boy’s dreams of dancing out of his oppressed coal-mining community, this isn’t anything like Disney’s Newsies. The ballet teacher (played by the remarkable Shanesia Davis) isn’t the soft-spoken inspiration. She’s a chain-smoking, bitter-burnout, thoroughly-entertaining sage. Davis, with impeccable timing and moxie, counts out the dance sequence while simultaneously calling out the girls’ faults. “Born to Boogie” (choreographed by Didier and Craig V. Miller) is a hoot. Davis, Tommy Novak (Mr. Braithwaite) and Lincoln Seymour (Billy) step up their rhythmic shenanigans.
Dancing is the focal point of the show. Didier and Miller orchestrate big numbers with ballerinas, coal miners and police. The movements have an angry beauty about them in the clash of frothy innocence with beaten-down resignation. Two young men, Seymour and Jacob Kaier, share the title role in different performances. For my show, Seymour was the Billy. And this boy can dance! In the “Angry Dance” and “Electricity” numbers, Seymour showcases the passion and talent of an aspiring male ballet dancer. Yet, it’s his “Expressing Yourself” duet with the delightfully quirky Peyton Owen that is one of the showstoppers. That and the high-energy curtain call finale.
The commanding Sean Fortunato (dad) leads the male coalminers’ chorus. Their multiple numbers are heavy-duty somber and gripping. In particular in a final scene, Didier creates an unforgettable audio-visual moment with the men’s booming harmony as they descend into the coal mines. The snapshot moment is powerful and marring.
BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL is as edgy as a musical gets. It’s not light and breezy. It’s poignant. And with all the political hoopla over coal miners, the oppressive story feels timely. And who better to reach across the aisle to present the conflict? Porchlight brings the drama, music and dance alive in its new home.
Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes includes an intermission
At Porchlight’s new home, the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn Street
Based on the film Billy Elliot by Lee Hall
Music by Elton John
Book and lyrics by Lee Hall
Directed and co-choreographed by Porchlight Artistic Associate Brenda Didier
With Co-Choreographer Craig V. Miller
Music direction by Linda Madonia
Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.
Fridays at 8 p.m.
Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Sundays at 6 p.m.
October 22 & 29 and November 5 & 26 at 2 p.m.
October 28 at 4 p.m.
November 16 at 1:30 p.m.
Please note: there is no 7:30 p.m. performance Thursday, Nov. 16.
EXTENDED Thru Dec 31st
Tickets are $33 – $60 and available at PorchlightMusicTheatre.org or by calling the Porchlight Music Theatre box office, 773.777.9884.
Photos by Austin Packard and Michael Courier
For more information and reviews on Chicago theatre, visit Theater in Chicago.