Coal miner’s dancer – Chicago Reader

I spent a semester studying in London in the winter of 1985, and one of the first concerts I attended was a benefit at Brixton Academy for the striking coal miners, featuring Aztec Camera and Everything but the Girl. It was an amazing show. Unfortunately, the strike ended six weeks later, with the miners returning to work without any concessions from the National Coal Board on pit closures; 23 mines closed in 1985, followed by nearly all the others.

Billy Elliot
Through 3/24: Wed 1:30 and 7 PM, Thu 7 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 1 and 5:30 PM; Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora, 630-896-6666,, $38-$79

That’s the background for Billy Elliot, the 2005 musical based on the 2000 film of the same name, featuring a supple and sturdy score by Elton John and book and lyrics by Lee Hall. And like that concert, it’s disquieting to realize that the perhaps unintentional message of the show (now in an absolutely corking production at Paramount under Trent Stork’s direction) is that individual artists can prevail even when systems fail.

Billy (played to perfection by Neo Del Corral at the performance I saw; Sam Duncan alternates in the role) is a 13-year-old kid in a northern England coal town. His mother is dead, his father (Ron E. Rains) and older brother, Tony (Spencer Davis Milford), are on strike, and he hates the boxing lessons his dad scrapes together 50 pence for him to take. When salty dance instructor Mrs. Wilkinson (the splendid Michelle Aravena) sees talent in him, she starts giving him lessons on the sly to help him audition for the Royal Ballet School. 

At first, his father, brother, and the gaggle of other hard-bitten working men in the town don’t understand. But the beautiful thing about Billy Elliot is that it allows each person to find their own voice and feet throughout the show. Billy’s Grandma (Barbara E. Robertson) sings about how she and her late husband would dance together—when he wasn’t getting drunk and slapping her around. Billy’s best friend, Michael (the show-stealing Gabriel Lafazan), loves wearing his big sister’s clothes and strutting his stuff. 

If you know the movie, you know that the town comes together to support Billy even as their own life support in the mines is being hollowed out. (“Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher” comes close to Elvis Costello’s “Tramp the Dirt Down” as a bitter ode to the late prime minister.)

Stork’s staging features a huge, ominous scenic framework (designed by Michelle Lily) that sets the characters inside the grimy scaffolding of the mines. When that disappears for the red-velvet glitz of the Royal Academy, we feel the same awe that Billy and his dad exhibit. Of course, a show like this requires exquisite choreography, and Isaiah Silvia-Chandley delivers. (Even the deliberately bad dancing here from Mrs. Wilkinson’s wannabe bunheads is utterly captivating.)

Billy Elliot is uplifting, but only to a point; Hall and John understood that when they crafted this show. Stork and his ensemble also know that Billy’s individual success stands against a grim background of broken promises, changing environments, and depressing prospects for his town and family.

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