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On Theater: 'Billy Elliot' moves deftly

April 18, 2013|By Tom Titus
  • Mitchell Tobin, second from right, as Billy in "Billy Elliot" at Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Mitchell Tobin, second from right, as Billy in "Billy… (Amy Boyle )

The art of the dance is enjoying a popularity not experienced since the 1950s when members of its royal family were Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse and Ann Miller. TV's "Dancing with the Stars" shares some of the credit — along with musical theater's "Billy Elliot."

Now ensconced in the Segerstrom Center for the Arts through April 28, this Tony Award-winning best musical of 2010, with music by Elton John, has arrived with a strident crescendo of sight and sound, blending a sore spot in English history with the fictional tale of a boy in fervent pursuit of his dream.

It takes four young actors, alternating in performances, to convey the story of a lad from a lower-class mining family, a boxing student who drops into a ballet class by chance and uses his newfound dancing skills to punch his ticket out of a grimy existence. If they're all as accomplished as Mitchell Tobin, who starred in Wednesday's opening, this show will run a long, long time.

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"Billy Elliot" is set in 1984, when Britain's coal miners went on a year-long strike to protest the economic policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Billy is the younger son of a widower father forced into poverty by the union action just when the boy needs money for a major dance audition.

Young Tobin is the show's centerpiece, but the heart and soul of this touring production are Rich Hebert, who plays the tough-but-tender father, and Janet Dickinson, the unbending dance instructor who sets Billy on a new career path.

Hebert is particularly effective in his character's change of heart, gradually coming to grips and ultimately fiercely (if awkwardly) supporting his son's dancing dream. Dickinson brings a steely demeanor to her role, yet her belief in Billy and her support of him are strongly rendered.

Tobin, who has packed nine years of dance training into his 12 years of life, excels in his presentation both on his feet and from his heart. He hits his peak early in the second act when paired in a fantasy scene with his older self — the superbly accomplished Maximilien A. Baud — for a powerful dance duet, during which the boy literally defies gravity to soar high above the stage to illustrate the heights his character will reach.

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