There could not have been a better time to bring the gritty hope of Billy Elliot to metro Denver.
And given some small but mighty flaws, it’s hard to imagine a better production of this simultaneously inspiring and depressing show.
If you don’t know the story of the smash London musical and hit movie “Billy Elliot,” you know the story through myriad sagas. A group of people are fighting and losing the good fight, maybe for the wrong reasons, maybe not, all the while one person struggles against personal demons and challenges to break free and rise above the fray. The Greeks, Romans, Nords, Christians, Chinese, everybody has told this story. In real life, there are no tidy endings. There may be hope for some, despair for others.
This regional premier of “Billy Elliot,” shines on greater Aurora especially bright. In the musical, a ragtag band of poor, uneducated Welsh coal miners fight a losing proposition against Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher’s move to close down a bevy of money-losing nationalized coal mines in the 1980s, pushing thousands of poor miners over the edge. It was hardly a clear-cut parable to fight, like slavery. Neither was the miner union’s response to strike for over a year, fighting for a noble cause that’s impossible to justify. Similarly, metro Aurora is struggling with any number of parallels: illegal immigration, polarizing politics, widening economic divide, and the list goes on. For the boy from a struggling, backward and intolerant family, the journey to become a ballet dancer instead of a boxer and coal miner is fraught with all the irony, surprises, joy and disappointments that thousands of people face right here.
But the winning message of “Billy Elliot” is to just keep on keeping on. Any progress is better than giving up or giving in. And the astonishing cast of this production delivers the story, the message and the show.
It’s a big cast with big, challenging songs and choreography, and everyone rises to the challenge with winning marches, packed-stage dancing, fight scenes and the scenes that move from a real world to a metaphorical one. This is a theater company that doesn’t shy away from any challenge, and almost always comes out on top.
The cast is thick with some of Denver’s top actors. Kris Graves has to fight with other talent adept at stealing the show, and wins a few rounds in his role as the deadpan accompanist Mr. Braitwaite. Veteran triple-threat Adrianne Hampton delivers a commanding Mrs. Wilkinson, the show’s crusty, chain-smoking ballet teacher. Colorado treasure Deborah Persoff nearly brings down the house with her solo, “Grandma’s Song.”
But the sheer energy and unfettered chutzpah of Benji Dienstrey’s cross-dressing “Expressing Yourself,” virtually did bring down the house on opening night. The entire show is a romping joy, but Dienstrey’s spot-on song and dance in drag wins the dog.
Likewise, Kaden Hinkle brings a stunning depth and confidence to the stage as Billy Elliot. He embodies the likable quirkiness of the story’s focus, peels off one song after another with a precision far beyond his years. But he also carried the production’s flaw across the stage.
While the story of “Billy Elliot” is alluring in itself, the stage musical is no less a West End tradition. The entire show builds up to one scene: “Electricity.” In typical big-show fashion, the pinnacle dance number after the pinnacle song is what the production teases, and in this case didn’t quite deliver.
The flaw was hardly fatal, though, as Hinkle’s riveting performance and that of the rest of the cast delivers one of the metro season’s top productions. Director Bernie Cardell, Musical Director Blake Nawa’a and choreographers Gina Eslinger and Andrew Bates all earned stripes for pulling off a big success in the area’s most challenging space.
The Vintage company’s “Billy Elliot” delivers not just what we all want right now, but what we need.