'Billy Elliot' Brings Electricity to Wharton Center Stage
Ben Cook stars as Billy Elliot. ©Amy Boyle Photography
A leading title role is demanding for any stage actor.
Yet the part of Billy Elliot in the acclaimed, Tony Award-winning musical requires a small army of talented young actors who take turns performing intricate dance moves, singing, and acting each and every night.
Ben Cook, one of four Billys currently starring in the national tour, played the role opening night at the Wharton Center in East Lansing. After acting as the character of Michael earlier in the tour, 15-year-old Cook has graduated to the title role - a move much-deserved, based on his multi-faceted performance Tuesday night.
The role of Billy requires many talents: ballet dancing, tap dancing (sometimes while jumping rope, no less), acrobatic flips and cartwheels, singing, comedic timing, not to mention maintaining a northern English accent throughout the show.
Needless to say, it takes a special actor to play Billy. With four young Billys in rotation, as well as a talented cast of young and adult actors alike, the national tour of "Billy Elliot the Musical" is an embarrassment of riches.
The musical, based on the 2000 film, is set in Northern England during the miners' strike of the mid-80s. Billy Elliot lives at home with his widowed father (Rich Herbert) and brother (Cullen R. Titmas), both involved with the strike, and his grandmother (Patti Perkins).
While taking boxing lessons at the gym, something he isn't quite invested in doing, Billy stumbles upon a ballet class of several young girls taught by Mrs. Wilkinson (Janet Dickinson). What follows is the struggle between wanting to pursue a newly-discovered passion and fighting against the stereotypes, judgment, and disapproval of others.
The story of Billy's journey reaches a multitude of emotions, from the can-you-believe-she-just-said-and-did-that antics of Billy's grandmother, played hilariously by Patti Perkins, to the heart-breaking scenes with the spirit of Billy's mum (Molly Garner).
Rich Herbert as Billy's father nails the balance between being the hard-nosed skeptic of his son's new interests and a lovably dry audience favorite, with some of the best one-liners in the show.
Janet Dickinson shows range as crusty dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson, who in the same moment can yell at her nagging daughter and then give Billy the maternal figure he needs to pursue his dream of dancing.
With music by Elton John and lyrics and book by Lee Hall, one might anticipate memorable music akin to "The Lion King." Aside from show standouts "Solidarity," "Born to Boogie," and "Expressing Yourself" with scene-stealer Michael, the musical numbers aren't the show's strong suit.
Instead, it's the snarky English dialogue that makes the show fun, at many times raucous in nature. And naturally, the group and solo dance performances by the cast are the true highlight.
Especially moving is seeing Billy dance with his adult self to the music of "Swan Lake" in the second act, a nod to the conclusion of the film version.
"Billy Elliot the Musical" is a must-see for those looking to laugh, cry, and marvel at the many degrees of talent exhibited by its national tour cast.
What happens on stage is exactly what Billy feels when he dances: electricity.
"Billy Elliot the Musical" will be at the Wharton Center through Sunday, January 20th. For show and ticket information, visit the Wharton Center website here.
Age Rating: BILLY ELLIOT is most appropriate for children 8 years of age or older. It contains strong language and some scenes of confrontation between policemen and miners.