Inspiration struck Elton John at the Cannes Film Festival.
The pop pianist and composer realized “Billy Elliot” would make a terrific musical, so he pitched the idea to director Stephen Daldry.
The rest is history for this international megahit, which went on to receive multiple awards.
Rivertown’s brilliant, irresistible production of this determined-to-please blockbuster surpasses the highest of hopes for its local premiere.
Amid the devastating 1984 coal miners’ strike in Northeast England, a young boy, Billy Elliot (Marcel Cavaliere), haunted by the death of his mother, discovers a hopeful lifeline in the unlikely form of dance.
Mentored by the brassy, chain-smoking dance instructor Mrs. Wilkinson (Elizabeth Argus) who bravely takes on the role of surrogate mother, Billy finds a passion at the ballet barre in stark contrast to the bloodshed in the streets.
Billy may just have the talent to save himself from the horrors of poverty and despair. If only he can attain the support of his machismo, working-class community, which views dance with utter disdain!
Be it the rousing paean “The Stars Look Down” or the very funny “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher” or the heart-rending “Dear Billy,” Kelly Fouchi’s impeccable direction adroitly stages a cavalcade of showstoppers. Every scene is crafted with precise detail, and every moment is filled with meaning.
Fouchi must be a child-actor whisperer because her work with the large cast of youngsters is amazing. They are fresh, sincere and absolutely delightful.
The mind-blowing choreography of Karen Hebert, Annie Taffaro and Ashley Schmidt is spectacular.
As in “West Side Story,” dance is beautifully used to express narrative. “Solidarity,” a surreal blending of delicate ballerinas juxtaposed with clashing miners and police, stuns with its significance.
In “We’d Go Dancing,” Billy’s addled grandmother (Becki Davis, who deftly straddles comedy and pathos) sings of sad remembrances of an abusive husband, as a vivid slow-motion composition of inebriated barroom males occurs on the opposite side of the stage.
Elton John’s moving score, based on North country ballads and protest songs, ranges from dynamic rock to toe-tapping show tunes and blazing anthems. Only in the high-spirited tap number “Expressing Yourself,” where Billy cross-dresses with his friend Michael (Ryan Smith), does Sir Elton’s music resemble his cheesier Disney movie songs.
Of course, the success of the evening resides squarely on the shoulders of Billy. Cavaliere, a freshman at NOCCA, fascinates with a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him performance quality. He has gorgeous lines as a dancer and creates a disarmingly honest, easy-to-love Billy.
“Angry Dance,” Billy’s outcry of rage at being denied his dream, is deeply affecting.
There is plenty of support from a talented cast graced with humor and affability.
Determined to encourage artistic expression in all around her, Argus is spot-on terrific as Mrs. Wilkinson, who bursts into Billy’s life with the triumphant “Shine.”
As Billy’s father, Mike Harkins, delivers an astonishingly wide range of emotions — fierce, frightened, brave, funny and loving — his stirring “Deep in the Ground” highlights the second act.
Eric Porter’s elaborate set design, Melissa Martinez’ evocative lighting and Erin Routh’s period-perfect costumes, distinctly create all the full variety of atmospheres.
“Billy Elliot” is more than another story about pursuing your dream despite overwhelming odds. It’s about freedom of expression, how art can transform chaos into harmony and how we all hunger for the euphoric liberation of dance.
And it’s about how parents need to stand behind the dreams of their kids.
It’s early, but this must-see extravaganza is a certain candidate for the best show of the 2017 season.
Bruce Burgun is a retired professor of theater from Indiana University and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
WHEN: Jan. 13-29
WHERE: Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, 325 Minor St., Kenner
INFO: (504) 461-9475 or rivertowntheaters.com