If you’ve never seen the 2000 film Billy Elliot, you should. It’s a very Northern English celebration of individuality and passion, of the power one feels when performing and running full speed toward their calling, all set amid the mayhem of England’s 1984 miners’ strike. The stage musical now running at Signature Theatre, with music by Elton John and book and lyrics by Lee Hall, is a heightened adaptation.
Billy, the young son of a striking English mining community, walks in to his boxing lessons but eventually stumbles upon and becomes enamored with another lesson happening in the building—ballet. Soon, he finds himself loving dance—and he happens to actually be good at it. When he gets the opportunity to join the Royal Ballet School in London, the rest, as Billy would say, is electricity.
The musical keeps all the wonderfully abrasive Northernness of the film. It isn’t easy to successfully keep up a Northern English accent if it isn’t your own—but the cast does its best to bring County Durham to Northern Virginia.
Liam Redford stars as one of Signature’s two Billy Elliots. (Owen Tabaka plays the lead in alternating performances.) Redford brings a charm and a sweetness to Billy, and gives the character the necessary heart. It’s easy to feel for Billy and his struggle and to really root for him to succeed, a credit to Redford’s performance.
Chris Genebach, recently seen as Macduff at the Folger, is a revelation as Billy’s father. Mr. Elliot embarks on his own painful journey throughout the narrative, and Genebach gives incredible weight and depth to some of the show’s most emotional scenes.
Nancy Anderson is outstanding as the gruff and straightforward dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson, who first sparks Billy’s fire when he attends her lessons. She’s something of a pseudo mother to Billy when he needs one after losing his own. Jacob Thomas Anderson shines as Billy’s flamboyant best friend Michael, who loves to dress up in women’s clothing and functions as Billy’s center of gravity. Even if the story is familiar from the film, Matthew Gardiner’s production features genuinely great moments of stage magic, the best of which features a high-flying Billy dancing with his older self.
Billy Elliot is about many things—work inequality, strikes, masculinity, homophobia, parental death, expressing individuality, finding yourself, chasing dreams—but what it might be about most is chance. An 11-year-old boy from a coal mining town in North East England wants the chance to dance, to make it out of a place that everyone tells him is going nowhere when he’s going somewhere. In a world of chaos, instability, and conflict both in his community and at home, Billy finds that to get that chance, he needs the support of his father, brother, grandmother, and neighbors. They all have to come together and give him that fighting chance to get out and make something of himself. And in Signature’s sincere new production, they do.
To Jan. 6, 2019, at 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $40–$106. (703) 820-9771. sigtheatre.org.