CCMT OPENS THEIR 57th SEASON AND SETS THE BALLET BAR HIGH AND PROVES
WILL STEAL YOUR HEART
The 1985 UK Miners strike in Northern England is the setting for CCMT’s new season of first rate musicals. The miners and their families have gathered to tell the story of BILLY ELLIOT, The Musical. Elton John's Tony Award-winning musical is now on stage through November 11th at the Hoffman stage at the Dean Lesher Center for the Arts. With a talented large cast that includes more than 30 actors CCMT Producers Wendy Wilcox and Mike Demers pulled off a nationwide search to cast Billy. “The unique demands of the role of Billy Elliot required us to search far outside our casting circle,” says Wilcox. “Billy is an intense role for a young actor who not only has to have the skills of an accomplished actor and the voice of a great singer, but one who also has the years of dance training needed to perform this incredibly rigorous role. We were thrilled to find Braden, and cannot wait to introduce him to Bay Area audiences.”
Leading a cast of more than three dozen actors is 14-year old Braden King, winner of the 2015 Junior World Dance Champion. Having played “Billy” in two previous productions with rave reviews, Braden is making his Northern California theatrical debut with CCMT. Braden, who lives in Virginia, performs with CCMT thanks to a generous grant from the Diablo Regional Arts Association. Directed and choreographed by ballet expert and local favorite Jennifer Perry says “Ballet is an athletic sport and a beautiful way to express emotion - it’s not just for girls, and Billy Elliot proves that.” Perry who heads her own ballet studio grew up as a dancer and connected with Elliot’s story “(this musical) gives youngsters who have been studying their whole lives the opportunity to use their talent and training.”
The stunning cast includes many preteen actors which can be a daunting, but Perry succeeds with a dazzling cast on a wonderful set by Kelly James Tighe. The key is the casting of Billy, the young actor who has to hold the almost three hour show together. Braden King is on stage for the entire show acting, dancing or singing and that can be stressful for a preteen actor. The London and Broadway companies had three Billies always in the wings, and a vigorous training camp continually training and 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 each company, and boys were always in rehearsals as the tour went world wide. Its is remarkable to know that young King is the only Billy in this impressive cast.
BILLY ELLIOT is based on the 2000 film, and still trailing rave reviews from a successful 2005 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 Braden King, exhibits undeniable star power in his show stopping performance.
The show opens with the company singing “The Stars Look Down” - Music Director, Eryn Allen, brings the miners a mostly male cast to a vibrant sound with her thirteen member beaming orchestra. Despite King’s young age he is a well-trained dancer, and has the acting chops to make us believe the emotional highs and lows of the motherless boy who strays into a ballet class by mistake. Alongside Billie is his best friend Michael played by the marvelous 12 year old Chris Contrares who can tap dance and keep up with King like a pro.
The dynamic Shellie, winner Lynda DiVito, 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. The girls include the splendid Hannah Bachman, Gianna and Isabella Capozzi, Ella Dunderdale, Katie Glazier, Aimee Hennessy, Abby Moran, Grace Perry, Kailee Sanderson and the charming Yelena Shaterian. Perry choreographed the main company numbers all with spirit of youth and fun for the teen players and forcefull for the miners union anthems and protests. Perry choreographed all of Billy’s solo dance numbers including the wicked, powerful “Angry Dance” where King proves a remarkable tap dancer.
The unforgettable Deborah Black plays the boy’s grandmother and sets the tone of humor in this story. Black’s sassy, sweet, and unapologetic portrayal as Grandma is a joy to watch, delivering a wealth of smiles and laughs. An exceptional dance number featuring the adult men combined with Grandma’s lively performance create the fun number, "Grandma’s Song." Black and King also have an endearing chemistry. The entire cast is pitch perfect with the characters’ dialect as coached by voice expert Lynne Soffer, who kept to the right mood of the North East England accent.
The story unfolds over the year of the strike when the Prime Minister and villain of the story, Margaret Thatcher, has denationalized the coal pits. After Billy is taken in by Mrs. Wilkinson, the ballet teacher who recognizes his talent, he sneaks off to dance class rather than boxing at the gym where his father wants him to be. The engrossing Vince Perry plays Billy’s father, and, of course, comes across as one of the many villains that keep him from his dance dream. Vince later brings the father/son love in the show with a touching heart pulling moment.
Dad wonderfully encourages the future of his son in “He Could Go and He Could Shine” with the miners the compelling Todd Carver, Jim Cowling, Steven McCloud, Christian McCooey, Luke Phillips, Nicholas Rodriguez, Joe Saam, and Michael Versoza. The stand out in the cast of miners is powerhouse, Daniel Rubio, who opens the show as big Davey in the company song “The Stars Look Down”. Rubio was part of the Berkeley Playhouse sold run of BILLY ELLIOT where he also brilliant as Davey. He easily lifts Billy and almost gives some of his dance numbers flight. Rubio is always a charmer on the CCMT stage and in this company he is exceptional. The second act rousing opening number “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher” Rudio appears as Thatcher and is perfect in his heels and Liz Martin’s costumes. Director Perry brings a ton of energy and fun to the holiday cheer of the miner families and George the boxing coach played by Paul Plain is in full throttle and eye catching.
The marvelous Marty Newton plays Mrs Wilkinson’s piano assistant Mr Braithwaite and is featured in the sizzling dance number with King and DiVito “Born To Boogie”. DiVito as the tough and tender ballet teacher, steals our hearts in “The Letter” with Billy and his ghost mom played by the pitch perfect endearing Josselyn O’Neill. The song is sweet and heartfelt and empowers the boy to follow his dreams. They all have fully realized voices and Allen’s music direction is flawless. The other young actor to watch is Chris Contrares as Michael, Billy's best friend and dancing partner in the rousing "Expressing Yourself." Clever eye catching choreography by Perry, it features some large puppet dresses that fill out the cute dance the two boys enjoy. The young actress that plays Mrs. Wilkinson's daughter Debbie is the giddy Lucy Powers and her crush on Billy is adorable.
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 CCMT craft team including Michael Oesch’s poignant light design filling the factory walls backlit with windows that bring the miners issues into frame. Later Oesch brings full stage an amazing lit shadow ballet set to Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" with King and the vibrant Patrick Brewer as the older Billy. Brewer is elegant as the older Billy lifting King and soaring on the Hoffman stage. Adam Puglielli’s technical direction takes a stylish effect and brings the riot and chaos to the powerful tap ballet “Angry Dance” that King excels in. King also is exquisite in "Electricity" where Billy explains with words and his body why he must dance; both show stoppers he proves his tap and ballet professionalism. Perry worked hours with King in staging his solo numbers and she says “The choreography is all original and mine. It was so fun to set the choreography on Braden. The hours we spent together rehearsing in the afternoons before the full cast at night were so inspiring. He is just such a bright light.”
Tighe’s set takes advantage of the high ceilings with a detailed factory look, the roll on family kitchen, and backdrop that works with Oesch’s industrial lighting. Tighe uses a high riser to create Billy’s second story bedroom and Props master Debbie Shelley created a workable kitchen set. I was 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 bright orange jumpsuits. But costume designer Lisa Martin has the kids in bright, cheerful colors and the brilliant cross dress costumes for Billy's best friend Michael are adorable. Martin kept Billy looking simple in t shirts and walking shorts and Tony, Billy's brother, in dark black top and pants.
The feisty Paul Plain 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 angry and always flawless Michael Doppe. Vince Perry and King 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. Vince and Doppe both deliver with a combination of humor and stubbornness. Billy's dream comes true when his father's miner 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. Braden King masters the demanding choreography, navigating from hostile, lunging turns to astounding flips and graceful leaps effortlessly. Billy is a sight to behold and, of course, Chris Contrares as Michael gives a wildly entertaining performance. He is irrepressibly charming in every way and he and King have a sweet natured friendship that opens this musical to all the love/labor it presents from Elton John's fine work.
I need to mention some of the other craft team that make this production of BILLY ELLIOT work so well. Assistant choreographer Kevin Gruwell who helped with the tap numbers and the sound design team from SomeMoreSound. Artistic Director and General manager Daniel J. Boyle who help to make this a successful sold out run. Wardrobe Coordinators Edie Olson, Star Valdez, Jolie Hicks, Michelle Daniel, and Liesl Seitz Buchbinder who had the classic tutu’s ready for all the girls and the fun curtain call finale.
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. Jennifer Perry portrays this stark contrast with intriguing imagery throughout the production, it is very powerful. A boy learns to dance as coal miner's learn to strike. The sold out Contra Costa Musical Theatre audience were cheering at the close of the opening night performance. 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 Hoffman Theatre. Next up is WEST SIDE STORY that opens in March 2018. In the meantime add BILLY ELLIOT to your pre holiday MUST SEE list.
Contra Costa Musical Theatre presents
By Lee Hall and Elton John,
Based on the Universal Pictures/Studio Canal film,
presented by Contra Costa Musical Theatre
Directed and Choreographed by Jennifer Perry
Music Director Eryn Allen
Producers Wendy Wilcox & Mike Demers
Through November 11, 2017
Dean Lesher Center for the Arts
1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek
Running time: 2 hours 45 min, one intermission
Tickets: $44-$59; 925-943-7469, www.ccmt.org
Photos by Linda Carter
BRADEN KING FEATURE
Braden Allen King stars as Billy for a third time in the Contra Costa Musical Theatre production of Billy Elliot the Musical in Walnut Creek, California from October 13-November 11, 2017.
Braden Allen King has been dancing almost as long as he has been walking. He was practically raised in his mother’s dance studio. By the age of 4, he didn’t want to watch anymore; he wanted to join in.
Young King was 13 years when he debuted as Billy in the Axelrod Performing Arts Center (PAC) production of BETM in Deal Park, New Jersey. He is from Fairfax Station, Virginia, where he lives with his parents and two siblings. With his debut as Billy on 4-Nov-2016, Braden became the 172nd young actor in the world to play the role of Billy Elliot on stage in a professional, regional or community theatre production of the musical.
“I thought it was really cool and I wanted to do it too,” he said. “My mom let me in the class. It was a lot of fun.”
Since then, Braden has been taking lessons not only in dance, but acting and singing. So it seemed natural that he was scouted for Contra Costa Music Theatre fall production of “Billy Elliot the Musical,” which runs Oct to Nov 11th.
“I saw the show on Broadway and I loved the storyline,” said the 13-year-old from Virginia. “It was beautiful. It’s like a dream role for me. I have lots of things in common with Billy. We both have a passion for dance. But unlike him, my parents have been supportive of me dancing.”
“The music is inspiring and very moving,” - . “It goes from emotional and dynamic to dark and manic to beautiful ballads and soulful chorals. It really drives the show.”
The production team was impressed and struck by Braden’s talent and work ethic when they first met.
“He is a doll,” “He’s so talented, and his parents support him and his progress as an artist. Braden is really the heart of “Billy Elliot,” and he is making that heart come to life.”
Braden has won numerous awards for his dancing at the World Dance Pageant, Believe Talent, Starpower Talent and New York City Dance Alliance. Axelrod discovered him at an open audition call in Manhattan. Living in Fairfax Station, Virginia, makes the situation a little difficult for Braden, his parents and his two siblings, but the family is making it work. His mother, Liz King, is a dance teacher, so he started dancing when he was just four years old. His training has taken place at Strictly Rhythm Dance Centerin Alexandra, VA, and NYCDA Conventions.
In addition to his dance training, Braden also takes voice lessons with the Laurie Nelson Voice Studio at NM Productions.
Since this is Braden’s first big show and the first time he has lived out of town, Mrs King is currently home-schooling her son and she said it is working out well.
One of his most recent accolades was when he was crowned 2016 Teen Mr Starpower Myrtle Beach with his performance to the song Dancin’ Fool. Here is a video of his winning dance:
CCMT is very pleased to have an experienced Billy such as Braden on board for their show, and his participation has been made possible by a generous grant from the Diablo Regional Arts Association. Executive Producer Wendy Wilcox said, “The unique demands of the role of Billy required us to search far outside our casting circle. Billy is an intense role for a young actor who not only has to have the skills of an accomplished actor and the voice of a great singer, but one who also has the dance training needed to perform this incredibly rigorous role.”