4.5 stars

Billy Elliot the Musical is a celebration. A celebration not only of dance in all its forms, but a celebration of acceptance, diversity and change. It is also a celebration of sorts to one of the most divisive times in British political history – the 1984/85 Northern England coal miners strike.

It is this dark backdrop that takes Billy Elliot from perhaps a light weight song and dance musical to something quite extraordinary. The production team led by Director Stephen Daldry along with writer and lyricist Lee Hall, composer Elton John and choreographer Peter Darling masterfully braid the miners struggles with the journey of 11 year Billy, who discovers a love of dance in a time and place where no boy should. It is this discovery and rise above objection that becomes a ‘beacon of hope in a dying community’.

There is an obvious collaboration between all the production team. The union between Daldry’s intelligent direction and acute staging, Darling’s masterful choreography and Ian MacNeil’s functional set design is daring, breathtaking and remarkably powerful – no more so evident than in the full company number ‘Solidarity’. Police, miners and young ballet dancers entwine and dance their way through a precision perfect routine showing the juxtaposition of the beauty of art and the violence of the time.

In the title role on opening night, Melbourne’s own River Mardesic is nothing less than a sensation. With a talent that far exceeds his 11 years, he gives us a Billy that is so accomplished – tough, passionate, sensitive and cheeky. Mardesic offers us so may wonderful moments that it really is difficult to condense. As Billy says at his audition for ballet school, his feeling for dancing is like “electricity” and the same can be said of Mardesic’s performance – he truely is electric!

But it’s not only Mardesic’s performance that impresses. Oscar Mulcahy is brilliant as Billy’s best friend Michael, whose penchant for women’s clothing culminates in the hilarious ‘Expressing Yourself’. A nod to acceptance, diversity and challenging the norm, Mulcahy’s and Mardesic’s duet brings the house down and worthy of its ovation. In fact, all the young performers onstage shine. Ella Tebbutt is wonderfully annoying as Mrs Wilkinson’s daughter Debbie along with many fantastic characters from the Wilkinson Ballet school students.

Lisa Sontag has a wonderful vigor as no nonsense ballet teacher Mrs Wilkinson. Spotting Billy’s raw talent and an opportunity for a kid to break the mould of expectation of a mining town,  Sontag’s Mrs Wilkinson is gutsy and determined. Billy’s brother Tony, skilfully played by Drew Livingston and Dad, Justin Smith (who incidentally played the role of Tony in the original Australian production) have wonderful journeys from the ‘only poofs do ballet’ mindset to accepting opportunity that following ones talent and passion can bring.

There is a genuine gritty determined spirit to all the adult cast, reminding us of the towns tough past, ongoing turmoil and unknown future.  Vivien Davies as Billy’s pasty eating Grandma – a delight and Dean Vince as rehearsal pianist Mr Braithwaite – a comedic treat. Take a few moments to focus on some wonderful ensemble performances – there are beautifully realised stories of unity from each miner, villager or police officer that cements this towns desperation and determination. And vocally the ensemble are a powerhouse.

Billy Elliot the Musical is a show that will leave its heart and spirit with you long after you leave the Regent Theatre. It is gritty and dazzling but most of all it is uplifting, not only for the production itself, but for the wonderfully exciting young talent on that stage. Australia really has a very, very bright arts future should we decide to foster, grow and invest in this remarkable talent.

Billy Elliot the Musical is playing at the Regent Theatre until April 19. Tickets

Photo credits: James D. Morgan/Getty Images

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