THE BERKELEY PLAYHOUSE SETS THE BALLET BAR HIGH AND PROVES THAT BILLY ELLIOT WILL STEAL YOUR HEART
Berkeley Playhouse continues their ninth season of family theater with the East Bay premiere of Elton John's Tony Award-winning musical, BILLY ELLIOT the Musical now through March 25th at the Julia Morgan stage in Berkeley Ca. With a talented large cast that includes more than 30 actors Berkeley Playhouse Producing Artistic Director, Kimberly Dooley says "What's truly fulfilling about directing Billy Elliot the Musical is exploring this extraordinary work that demands its multitude of young performers be in absolute control of the storytelling. As a director and educator, there is nothing more thrilling than seeing a young actor realize they are holding the core of a big Broadway musical all on their own."
The dual cast includes many under the age of 15 which can be a daunting, but Dooley and co-choreographer Allison Paraiso succeed in a visual triumph. The key is the casting of Billy, the young actor who has to hold the almost three hour show together. And to accomplish that high end task of finding a preteen actor who is excellent at ballet, singing and acting is not easy.
The Westend and Broadway companies had three Billies always in the wings, and a vigorous training camp continually preparing Billies as the boys aged out. It was almost a Billy Elliot factory of sorts. When the show went on tour, four Billies were part of the company, and Billies were always in training as the tour went world wide.
This talented Berkeley company has cast two young actors - dancers Matthew Dean and Parker James Fullmore who have both appeared as Billies in other regional theater performances who share the role of Billy. Both are appealing in their roles as the dancing preteen driven boy. Matthew Dean just scored his first national tour with NEWSIES, so you can bank on the fact that BPH has some excellent talent in this production. Based on the 2000 film, and trailing rave reviews from a successful Broadway run, the show about a miner's son who longs to become a ballet dancer is set against the gritty backdrop of the mid-1980s coal miners' strike in Britain.
The themes of a young boy's improbable dream and the political situation make a touching cross over story of two wars of sorts. The fierce stirring anthems, folk songs, and warm ballads of Elton John's score, with book and lyrics by Lee Hall make this an easy winner of ten Tony awards with its long run on Broadway. With Elton’s touching music alongside lyricist, Lee Hall, this superb musical has indelible humor and heart, a solid cast, and both Billys, exhibit undeniable star power.
The show opens with the company and Billy singing “The Stars Look Down” - Music Director, Rachel Robinson, brings the miners and mostly a male cast to a vibrant sound with her seven member orchestra. Despite both Fullmore’s and Dean’s young ages they are well-trained dancers, and both have the acting chops to make us believe the emotional highs and lows of the motherless boy who strays into a ballet class by mistake.
The dynamic Taylor Bartotucci plays Mrs Wilkinson the frisky chain smoking dance instructor. She sings “Shine” with her goofy crew of Ballet Girls and is a wonderful opener to meet the kids in the show. Two sets of preteens play the children in the show on alternate dates. Dooley choreographed the main company numbers all with spirit of youth and fun for the young players and forcefull for the miners union anthems. The impassioned Allison Paraiso choreographed all of Billy’s solo dance numbers including the wicked, powerful “Angry Dance” where both boys are remarkable.
Photos by Ken Krantz Studios
The sharp Mary Gibboney plays the boy’s grandmother and sets the tone of the humor in this story. Gibboney’s sassy, sweet, and unapologetic portrayal as Grandma is a joy to watch, delivering a wealth of belly laughs. An exceptional dance number featuring men in black suits combined with Grandma’s lively performance create the fun number, "Grandma’s Song." Gibboney and Billy also have an endearing chemistry. The entire cast is just about right on with the characters’ dialect as coached by dialect expert Josh Schell, and kept to the right mood of the language by the standout assistant director, Megan McGrath.
The story unfolds over the year of the strike when the Prime Minister and villain of the piece, Margaret Thatcher, has denationalized the coal pits. After Billy is taken on by Mrs. Wilkinson, the ballet teacher who recognizes his promise, he sneaks off to dance class rather than boxing at the gym where his father has placed him. His dad and Mrs. Wilkinson have a confrontation when Billy is prevented from attending the audition for the Royal Ballet School, arranged behind his father's back.
The capable Ken Sonkin plays Billy’s father, and, of course, comes across as one of the many villains, but later brings the father/son love in the show with a touching heart pulling moment. Sonkin wonderfully encourages the future of his son in “He Could Be A Star” with the miners. The stand out in the cast of miners is local favorite, Daniel Rubio, who plays big Davey. He easily lifts Billy and almost gives some of his dance numbers flight. Rubio is always a charmer on the BPH stage and in this company he is a terrific. Along with John Hale, and the marvelous Marty Newton, Paul Plain, Steven McCloud, Jesse Cortez, Kris Anthony Williams, Louel Senores, and Chad Watkins, all who switch sides and appear as policemen as well.
The company of miners and police bring the anthem song “Solidarity” emotional cheers and besides Billy’s moving solo’s - “Solidarity” is a true show stopper. This number also features the BPH craft team including Nick Kumamoto’s poignant light design filling the back walls with back light that brings the miners issue’s into frame. Later he uses the miners hat lights for some dramatic moments. Lyle Barrere’s sound design takes a stylish effect and brings the riot and chaos to the Julia Morgan.
Kirsten Royston’s set takes advantage of the high ceilings with a floor to ceiling detailed window panes backdrop that is so very effective with Kumamoto’s shadow lighting. Royston uses two high risers to create Billy’s second story bedroom, but never outshines the fiery talent onstage. Royston is also the props master;she created a workable kitchen set. I was most impressed with the cop shields, and miner hats she created. The costumes are not the bright point for most of this two hour 45 min show, the miners and cops are all in dark tones navy and blue jump suits. But costume designer Lisa Dantz has the kids in bright, cheerful colors and the brilliant cross dress costumes for Billy's best friend Michael are adorable.
Bartolucci’s as the tough and tender ballet teacher, steals our hearts in “The Letter” with Billy and his ghost mom played by the pitch perfect Melinda Meeng. The song is sweet and heartfelt and empowers the boy to follow his dreams. They all have fully realized voices and Robinson’s music direction is flawless. The other young actor to watch is David Rukin as Michael, who plays Billy's best friend and dancing partner in the number "Expressing Yourself." Cute eye catching choreography by Dooley it features some large puppet dresses that fill out the cute dance the boys enjoy. The two young girls that play Mrs. Wilkinson's daughter Debbie, Emma Curtin and Ella Dunderdale are both very humours and their crush on Billy is adorable.
The feisty Billy Raphael plays George the memorable boxing coach. He is another male in the boy's life who goes against his dance dreams along with his older brother Tony played by the capable Zachary Padio. The winning Scottie Woodward is featured as Mr. Braithwaite the accompanist who champions the boy early on. Woodward is brash but lovable in the rousing number “We Were Born to Boogie” with Bartolucci and Billy. The powerful "Angry Dance" closes Act I and both boys soar in "Electricity" where Billy explains with words and his body why he must dance; both show stoppers and both boys show their tap and ballet professionalism.
The charismatic Raphael is now the lovable boxing coach George, opens the second act with the entire company in the show stopping “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher”. The number features the talent also of Dooley’s creative team as everyone comes full forward with the costumes, props and wonderful choreography.
Another highlight that the sold out BPH audience roared with approval is the magic change of pace in the scene with his older Billy played and danced brilliantly by Danila Burshteyn - set to Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." Burshteyn’s well executed ballet with the younger Billy is a true artistry of how this story backed by the miners strike will lift you. Sonkin and Billy in their father and son song “Deep into the Ground” are moving and their voices shine. His father realizes that his first obligation is to his son, rather than to his fellow miners. Sonkin delivers with a combination of humor and stubbornness. Billy's dream comes true when his father's friends back his escape from a life like their own.
As with the original film the musical shows emotional depth with every cast member Billy encounters. Both young Dean and Fullmore master the demanding choreography, navigating from hostile, lunging turns to astounding flips and graceful leaps effortlessly. Billy is a sight to behold. And of course David Rukin as Michael Caffrey gives a wildly entertaining performance. He is irrepressibly charming in every way and he and Billy have a sweet-natured friendship that opens this musical to all the love/labor it presents from Elton John's fine work.
I want to mention some of the other craft team that make this production of BILLY ELLIOT work so well. Michael Patrick Wiles who help cast the Billys and is the resident casting director for the BPH. Production manager Cameron Pence has help to make this run a successful sold out run. Wig and makeup, Alexis Lazar kept Gibboney’s grandmother look warm and realistic. The fight director who help coordinate the miners riot on stage Dave Maier created a full throttle protest. Wardrobe Coordinators Lainy Appleby and Caroline Walters who had the classic tutu’s ready for all the girls and the fun curtain call.
BILLY ELLIOT is a story about the power of realizing potential and this delightful production shows that against all odds, destiny has a way of shining through. In chilling, desperate times, hope and discovery shines and Kimberly Dooley’s portrays this stark contrast with intriguing imagery throughout the production is very powerful. A boy learns to dance as coal miners learn to strike. The appeal of a young boy in the central role and the other children in the cast are a magnet for a family audience.
The sold out BPH audience were on their feet at the close of the performance and this musical features a wonderful curtain call with “we want more” surprises. You don’t need to bring your dance shoes to this inspiring musical, but you will want to buy some for your kids or yourself as you leave the Berkeley Playhouse. Next up is URINETOWN the musical, maybe a great way to end the 4 year drought here in Northern Ca. it opens April 6th.
The Berkeley Playhouse presents
BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL
Dare to dream; Dare to dance
Book & lyrics by Lee Hall, Music by Elton John,
Directed and Choreographed by Kimberly Dooley,
Music Director Rachel Robson
Co-Choreographer Allison Paraiso
Through Saturday, March 25, 2017
Julia Morgan Theater,
2640 College Ave., Berkeley
Running time: 2 hours 45 min, one intermission
Tickets: $23-$60; 510-845-8542 x351
Photos by Ben Krantz Studio.
Cast: Matthew Dean/Parker James Fullmore, David Rukin, Emma Curtin/Ella Dunderdale, Ken Sonkin, Zachary Padlo, Taylor Bartolucci, Mary Gibboney, Billy Raphael, Melinda Meeng, Maria Mikheyenko, Jennifer Stark, Barry Martin, Daniel Rubio,
Scottie Woodard, Tom Curtin, and Danila Burshteyn.
Ensemble: Jude Bennett, Loren Breidenbach, Anika Brown, Gianna Capozzi, Isabella Capozzi, Jesse Cortez, Charlotte Curtin, Emma Curtin, Tom Curtin, Ella Dunderdale, Sophie Eckber, Elsa Faulders, John Hale, Jonah Horowitz, Malia Lee, Olivia Leung-Brown, Mira Levi, Mariko Rath, Barry Martin, Steven McCloud, Caleb Meyers, Maria Mikheyenko, Casey Moore, Martin Newton, Orelia Oiknine, Paul Plain, Clio Salzer, Kailee Sanderson, Kailamae Rain Kim Sands, Khoa Sands, Lea Schickler, Louel Senores, Piper Sperske, Jennifer Stark, Kathryann Terry, Chad Watkins, Kris Anthony Williams, and Maya Wong.
BP Managing Director Gretchen Feyer announced "SHINE!", a special benefit performance of
Billy Elliot the Musical
on March 24, 2017.
The pre-performance event begins at 6:00 p.m. with a festive reception in the historic Julia Morgan Theater that will include cocktails, light bites, and a decadent dessert bar hosted by some of the East Bay's top restaurants, caterers, and beverage specialists including Ann's Catering, Drake's Brewing Company, Le Mediterranee, Mariposa Bakery, Nabolom Bakery, Sutro Wine, Sweet Adeline Bakeshop, and Two Local Girls. The event will also include a special announcement regarding the East Bay theater company's upcoming 10th anniversary season, launching September 2017. In addition to the reception, attendees receive premiere seating to the company's hit production of the ten-time Tony Award-winning musical Billy Elliot, The Musical that begins promptly at 7:30 p.m.
The evening will benefit Berkeley Playhouse's Pay What You Can Night performances, and multiple Financial Aid programs that provide access to local students to both performances in the Professional season and classes in their award-winning Conservatory.
"Currently, Berkeley Playhouse is self-funding our multiple outreach programs. Our Pay What You Can performances see 1000+ children and adults each season, most of whom tell us this is their one opportunity to see fully produced, professional musicals-and we want to be able to double that within the next year," say Feyer. "Doing so means adding a second, fully dedicated performance of each of our five Professional Season productions in which the average attendee pays less than $8. Additionally, our newly expanded Student Matinee Program and Financial Aid programs for our incredible Conservatory have been supported by our own budget. We want to
to continue but to expand-"SHINE!" provides that opportunity. We're creating a fun event for young and old alike so that families can share the experience of supporting local theatre and education programs together."
"Since we opened nine years ago, nearly 600 students have received monies for Financial Aid,' says Rachel Eisner, Berkeley Playhouse Director of Education. "This past year alone, Berkeley Playhouse funded financial aid packages for classes and programs in our Conservatory for sixty-five students, ranging from elementary to high-school age. Additionally, this year we added self-subsidized tickets for 750 students from the Berkeley / Oakland school system to attend our professional theater productions. These are students whom would otherwise not be able to participate in any type of theater programs. Our current Financial Aid funding comes directly from our budget-we just make it work. I am excited that SHINE! will not only help us continue those programs, but allow them to grow them exponentially to include deeper partnerships with local schools and community based programs for families."
Tickets for SHINE! are $125 for adults and $50 for children,
21 and under and are available online at www.BerkeleyPlayhouse.org.