Friday, November 21, 2008

Intermission Talk: November 24, 2008

Veterans & Newcomers Combine

To Warm the Boards for the Holidays

by Tony Vellela

Like the best holiday eggnog, where the milk, sugar and eggs need to get jolted with a strong dose of brandy, four offerings on the Great White Way get the mixture right, and will provide a welcome holiday kick.

The much-anticipated transfer from the West End of Lee Hall and Elton John's "Billy Elliot" fulfills its advance promise to a very large degree. Its young performers are permitted to shine, because the material they sing, dance and act honors their talent, and lets them inhabit believable young people. Set during conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's England of 1984, the residents of the northern mining towns have learned that the government plans to shut down the coal pits, and with that move, shut down their livelihoods, and their lives. Young Billy is an eleven-year-old average kid being raised by his widowed dad, who like Billy's older brother is a miner. His cheerfully forgetful Grandmother, herself the widow of a miner, is sometimes like a second under-age child in the household. Billy, like the other lads in town, takes a weekly boxing class in the shabby community hall. One afternoon, he is asked to stay late to turn the keys over to the girls' ballet class teacher, who assumes he's there to dance. Ever obedient, he joins in reluctantly, only to have it lead to an unkindled talent no one suspected was there.

That Billy would eventually grow into a real dancer by show's end never is in doubt. But the plight of the despairing miners does not result in a happy ending. Billy comes up against the prejudices of a town, and a family, who see his chosen career path, instead of the one that leads underground, as less than manly. What distinguishes this tale is the realistic depiction of a boy who has no control over his life, but for most of the story, does not fight back, nor does he know how to. When the life-weary ballet teacher [Haydn Gwynne, who finds the conflicts within her character's options] arranges an audition for Billy at the Royal Ballet School, the police raids that engulf the neighborhood stymie Billy's secret plan to sneak out of the house and ride the train to London. It is only when his father, [Gregory Jbara] witnesses his son's prowess that he gives in, and changes from adversary to advocate. Billy's brother continues his vehement objections that the lad is too young to know what he wants, and that he owes an obligation to his heritage of being born into a mining family.

In the few scenes when she is allowed to participate, Carole Shelley, as the Grandmother, lights up the proceedings without shifting the balance. This veteran Broadway performer used her authentic British accent in 1965 to tickle audiences as one half of the Pigeon sisters in Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple." Here, in one of her character's more lucid moments, she shows Billy that some people need to settle for very small pockets of joy when their lives are defined by oppression. Recalling how her usually drunk and abusive husband would transform whenever they went dancing, she nearly floats above the floorboards, demonstrating her younger self in "We'd Go Dancing."

There's much to applaud in this splendid production, including a truly ingenious set design by Ian McNeil that takes the shell of the community hall, and pulls out large units from its walls like bureau drawers, along with rising and falling room sections, all with an unobtrusive rhythm that matches the grace of ballet. And the choreography by Peter Darling covers the widest palate from "Swan Lake" to Music Hall hoofing, punctuated by the lockstep routines of muscular coppers with nightsticks and plexiglass shields.

So what's not to like? Well, this is a coming-of-age story set in a Broadway musical, set in a wrenching political climate. What it wants is more brandy, that is, more of the hard stuff. The first twenty-five or so minutes present dance pieces, like a coming attractions trailer for those who might have been put off by the newsreel footage of the real miners' strike that is meant to give us background and context. But the reality of the newsreel often gets lost or softened later, because it 'lives' in a Broadway musical. That balance is possible. See another coming-of-age story about a young teen trapped in the midst of political turmoil, the stunning "Serafina," for a very commendable example in which the politics does not at all subsume the entertainment value.

The other aspect that threatens to undercut the experience is the misguided notion that authenticity would suffer if, God forbid, we should be able to understand what everyone is saying behind those thick and thicker accents. See Williamstown's summer of '07 revival of "The Corn is Green" as an example of how this can be done.

But the dancing ! The dancing ! As Billy, Trent Kowalik, who performed the role the night I attended [and who alternates with two other Billy actors] is nothing less than fierce in his 110% commitment to those moves. His lightning-quick movements in Act Two's "Electricity" provide the same elation one felt when Idina Menzel's Elphaba soared above the rest of the world in "Wicked." Billy's move to New York was worth the wait.

Before Billy moved into the Imperial Theatre, the multi-dysfunctional Weston family from "August: Osage County" spilled out over the footlights, cussin' and clawin' and screaming' and such. After they up and moved to the Music Box, some newcomers took up residence in the Weston's Oklahoma homestead, including two accomplished actors in the roles of the matriarch Violet [Estelle Parsons], and her Brillo-tough sister Mattie Fae [Molly Regan].

Estelle Parsons photo by Joan Marcus

"Violet and Mattie Fae are different manifestations of damaged goods," Estelle declares one night backstage, after yet another compelling performance. "Both of them were neglected and abused." Molly agrees, pointing out that "Mattie Fae and Violet both had a very abusive childhood. One of their mother's boyfriends came on to Violet, and Mattie Fae fought him off with a claw hammer."

Estelle, an Oscar winner for "Bonnie and Clyde," and Molly, one of Steppenwolf's founding members, had both seen the Tracy Letts Pulitzer Prize winner before joining the cast at the end of this summer. "I saw it in Chicago," Molly stated, while Estelle "saw it at the Imperial, before it moved. I couldn't understand the audience's reaction - there was a lot of laughter. It was like the audience ran away with it." Other reports indicated that the production had gotten a bit loose, and based on a recent viewing with the current cast, that problem has been more than corrected.

Molly Regan photo by Joan Marcus

Each of these women talks about another role they've done, that some have compared this work to, but with different conclusions. For Molly, "the role closest was Big Momma in 'Cat,' because they are both ruthless, strong, territorial, and possessive of their favored child." She performed the Tennessee Williams role at Steppenwolf, where "August" originated. Regarding comparisons to Albee's Martha, Estelle finds them "completely different. Martha is a garden variety alcoholic, but she is a functioning person. She operates within a life. Violet rarely functions. She has hallucinations. She lives in a house with the shades pulled down and taped shut." And at eighty, Estelle shows no signs that the rigors of the part, with its volcanic outbursts and rapid ascents and descents on that lengthy staircase have slowed her down. "The physical challenges were not so great. I've been a runner all my life. I hike and climb, and ski, and I dance."

If you haven't seen this new classic, give yourself a treat. And if you have, take it in again, and enjoy these two great actors bring their personal, inspired interpretation to these steely sisters.

Sisters figure in another holiday show, as part of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas." Installed for a limited run at the Helen Hayes, this stage version of the perennial Christmas movie favorite has been a smash on the road, under the deft direction of Walter Bobbie, A newcomer to the Gotham Yule pool of traditions to enjoy, it joins the spectacular Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall, celebrating seventy-six timeless years at America's most elegant Art Deco palace. These two musical feasts offer a traditional and a new gift to all those jaded Janes and Jameses who might need to sneak in and enjoy the pleasures of feeling good for a while, even if they tell their friends they were really picking out what to wear to the Bunker.

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TONY VELLELA, the veteran theatre correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, writes and produces the PBS series about theatre, "Character Studies". His work has also appeared in Parade, Theatre Week, USA Today, Dramatics, Rolling Stone, and several other publications.

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