On Dallas Stages, It's the Season of the Song
High season for musical theater has arrived. Orchestras are tuning up and audiences are turning up to see a couple of vintage and rarely revived oldies, Oliver! and Pippin, and to get their first looks at two hot-from-Broadway hits, Billy Elliot the Musical and Next to Normal. There may not be another week this year that has Dallas stages this hot with show tunes, kick lines and over-choreographed curtain calls.
At the Winspear Opera House, it's Billy Elliot, brimming with smile-through-tears moments and spectacular dancing. Like the 2000 movie it's based on, the Tony-winning Broadway adaptation was directed by Stephen Daldry. Lee Hall wrote the musical's book and lyrics; Elton John composed the score. It's an enormous show, heaving with scenery, overflowing with tutu'd moppets and banging with throbby rock. It's one of the biggest Broadway tours to blow through since Wicked, and like that one, Billy Elliot sends its title character up, up and away above the stage floor in a gravity-defying showstopper.
The production rotates five young singer-dancer-actors in the role of Billy, a motherless boy whose dream of winning a spot in a prestigious British ballet academy is nearly thwarted by his coal-miner dad (Rich Hebert) and brother (Jeff Kready). Swiss 13-year-old Giuseppe Bausilio performed Billy on press night, and he goes from here right into the Broadway cast. Triple threat, this one. His dancing is superb, his singing more than adequate—after his biggest solo dance number, "Electricity," he has to stop and belt a high note—and his acting is subtle and mature. As his little cross-dressing friend Michael, tiny titan Griffin Birney is adorable, too, bringing plenty of heart to "Express Yourself," as he and Billy sing and tap with a chorus of giant frocks.
The grown-ups in the cast are fine all around, especially Broadway veteran Faith Prince as the village's chain-smoking ballet teacher Mrs. Wilkinson, who discovers Billy hanging back after boxing lessons. Like Betty Buckley and Patti LuPone, Prince has one of those brilliant Broadway faces and a voice that bounces off the back row.
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Peter Darling's choreography and Daldry's direction give us a child's vision of a scary adult world. Darling starts with classical frames then deconstructs traditional ballet to reflect the herky-jerky movements of antsy children. Billy's dream ballet mirroring his older self (played by Maximilien A. Baud) takes "Swan Lake" and spins it into a stunning pas de dude with visual references to Jerome Robbins and Agnes de Mille. Later, Billy's angry dance, bouncing his body off the plastic shields of a line of uniformed riot police moving against the striking miners, is as explosive and dramatic as the rumble of Jets and Sharks in West Side Story.
This is the best import by the Lexus Broadway Series so far. If you go, don't pull that typical Dallas audience move of rushing up the aisle as soon as the curtain comes down. Billy Elliot actually ends with a happy-dance cum curtain call featuring the entire company changed from mining town grunge into sparkles and spangles. It's fabulously feel-good stuff.
Lyric Stage's locally produced revival of Oliver!, now at the Irving Arts Center, is even bigger than Billy Elliot, with a cast of 48, half of them cute kids in Dickensian tatters, and more than 30 musicians in the orchestra pit (triple Billy Elliot's pit). Directed by Cheryl Denson, with musical direction by Jay Dias and choreography by Ann Neiman, it's the full-score Oliver! created half a century ago by writer-composer-lyricist Lionel Bart, who died in 1999.
That's good and bad. As a museum piece, Oliver! has quaint charm. All those starving orphans banging empty gruel bowls on workhouse tables, all those grimy Cockney drunks singing "Oom-Pah-Pah" with fat wenches down the pub. The score is bouncy and lush. But 50 years on, and more than 150 since Charles Dickens' novel was published, it's not so delightful to see poverty, petty theft, kidnapping and spousal abuse Cliffs Noted into musical comedy. Lead wench Nancy (played with full-throated passion by Catherine Carpenter Cox) sings the ballad "As Long as He Needs Me" about evil husband Bill Sykes (Daylon Walton) just after he's fist-punched her face. Today we call that "enabling."
As Oliver Twist, 13-year-old Jack Vangorden uses a whispery, sweet falsetto on "Where Is Love?" (Oliver has almost no dialogue in the show, and only that one solo number.) Jonathan Beck Reed as Fagin, greedy mastermind of the pickpocket gangs, is a twinkly-eyed comic who steals every scene he's in. Just as he should.
As downer musicals go, Next to Normal, at Uptown Players at Kalita Humphreys, should come with a list of possible side effects, like those drugs advertised during nightly newscasts. "Suicidal thoughts may occur," for instance, or "could cause sleep disturbances." Elton John's vibrant score for Billy Elliot lost the 2009 Tony to this sung-through show's droning tunes by Tom Kitt, with lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Neither show boasts what you'd call hummable hits, but at least Billy Elliot, about a boy who achieves his dreams, sends you home smiling and dancing on air. Next to Normal, a gloomy, nightmarish exploration of mental illness, expressed with loud music, could send you out with a migraine.
Diana, played with one angry facial expression by Patty Breckenridge, is a bipolar housewife and mother who undergoes electroshock therapy and attempts suicide. Left in her choppy wake are her unfeeling husband (Gary Floyd) and emotionally overwrought teenage son (impressive newcomer Anthony Carillo) and daughter (Erica Harte). On the sidelines of angst are the daughter's pothead boyfriend (Jonathan W. Gilland) and Diana's therapists (both played by Jonathan Bragg).
Directed by Michael Serrecchia, Uptown's production, the first regional N2N, looks gorgeous, with a three-story set by Andy Redmon and sharp lighting by Jason Foster. Musical director Scott A. Eckert's small backstage ensemble rips along nicely behind the over-miked cast. But it all feels like a small chamber musical spread out on too large a stage. The ending is slightly more upbeat than the two and a half hours before it, but not enough to prohibit pharmaceutical assistance to get through the rest of the night. Take 'em if you got 'em.
Last and least is Pippin, running at Theatre Three. "We've got magic to do/just for you," the cast promises in the opening number of the 1972 Stephen Schwartz rock musical, based loosely on the life of medieval King Charlemagne. They never deliver magic, nothing close to it, in a messy, sluggish staging by director-designer Bruce R. Coleman. On the tiny in-the-round stage, the lumpy chorus, wearing what appear to be odd pieces of clothing filched from recycling bins, including a Nazi helmet, a yachting cap, jog bras, bloomers and molting boas, dry-hump each other in combinations of bad Fosse and '80s Jazzercise. It goes on for ages. Magic? David Blaine in a block of ice was more entertaining.
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