Brilliant production was highlighted by an exquisite performance by its young star.
It’s rare to experience a show that reaches out and truly touches the hearts of its audience in an electrifying and unforgettable way. The Arts Club’s production of Billy Elliot, which recently completed its run at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Theatre was just that - a theatrical masterpiece superbly brought to life through the use of dance, music, singing and the outstanding collaborative efforts of its creative team. And the driving force behind everything was the standout performance of the show’s young star, Nolan Fahey.
Like the film, the musical version of Billy Elliot, which features a score by Sir Elton John, tells the story of 12-year-old motherless Billy, who aspires to become a ballet dancer despite objections from his family and members of his small English town. The story is set against the backdrop of the UK miners’ strike from 1984-85 and explores the issues of traditional expectations, stereotypes and the struggle to follow one’s heart.
Not surprisingly, dance plays a major role in telling this story and choreographer Valerie Easton did an outstanding job in incorporating dance into the show, especially ballet and tap. The first-rate choreography, with ballet expertise provided by Suzanne Ouellette, not only treated audiences to the amazing talents of Nolan Fahey in the role of Billy, but also embodied the characterizations of each cast member and moved the story along at a very nice pace.
When done well, ballet often captivates audiences with its grace and other worldly athleticism. Tap on the other hand, delightfully entertains and Easton, a brilliant tap choreographer, capitalized on tap’s crowd-pleasing appeal, providing audiences with much appreciated breaks from the show’s heavy drama. While it was no surprise that the dancers in the show were skilled in tap, Easton was impressively able to get the entire cast, which included some actors with limited dance experience, to cleanly pull off tap choreography, to the delight of the audience.
In both the London and Broadway productions of Billy Elliot, the demanding role of young Billy was shared between three talented boys who rotated. In the Arts Club production, Fahey had the important job of leading the show on his own. Fahey is a remarkably gifted triple threat performer, whose performance was worthy of leading Billy Elliot on any stage in the world. His dance technique in ballet, tap, jazz and acrobatics, as well as his singing and acting abilities are magnificent. No doubt Fahey has an incredible career ahead, and Vancouver had the great privilege of witnessing Fahey’s tremendous talents at this early stage in his life.
Warren Kimmel was brilliant in the role of Billy’s father. His genuine emotion, which read like an open book onstage, took us through his character’s journey, which had an almost equally important role in the show as Billy’s. Caitriona Murphy was outstanding in her portrayal of Mrs. Wilkinson, the hard-nosed dance teacher who takes Billy under her wing. Murphy is quite a triple threat performer herself, and in addition to her en pointe characterization of Mrs. Wilkinson, Murphy was also able to showcase her strong singing and tap dancing skills, which included doing a very nice cartwheel in tap shoes.
Professional ballet dancer Matthew Cluff was excellent as the older version of Billy and his duet with the younger Billy in a dream-like dance number in the second act was a highlight of the show. Cluff also fared very well playing a variety of other characters throughout the show. While Cluff is an outstanding dancer (as expected), he is also strong in his acting and singing. Other notable performances included Danny Balkwill as Billy’s older brother, Barbara Pollard as Billy’s Grandma, Leora Joy Perrie as Billy’s late mother, David Adams as a town miner, and young Valin Shinyei who stopped the show with his entertaining and energetic performance as Billy’s friend.
The show also featured a contingent of young girls who played Billy’s ballerina friends, and boys who portrayed the other kids in the community. These kids added great energy and spark to the show with their fun characterization. As a dancer, one of the hardest challenges is to not look like a dancer onstage. In Billy Elliot, the ballet girls who train alongside Billy are not the most talented dancers, and the young actresses in the show, which included some legitimate dancers, did an excellent job of maintaining their characters through the choreography.
Director Bill Millerd expertly packaged the amazing talent from his performers and creative team, including set designer Ted Roberts, costume designer Alison Green, and costume designer Marsha Sibthorpe. The show’s 1980’s UK setting was very believable and the concurrent plotlines of the UK miners’ strike and Billy’s journey were masterfully intertwined, thanks to the collaborative efforts of Millerd’s direction and Easton’s choreography.
However, at the end of the day, what drives Billy Elliot the most is the talent of its young star. Without an exceptionally talented young man in the role of Billy, the story makes no sense. And Fahey did not disappoint with his superb performance. Billy Elliot was no doubt a triumph for the Arts Club, and an unforgettable experience for everyone who had the privilege of experiencing this exquisite masterpiece. I believe the memory of Arts Club’s Billy Elliot will be forever regarded in Vancouver’s theatre history as a remarkable artistic achievement.