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THEATER REVIEW: “Billy Elliot” at San Diego Civic Theatre

Billy Elliot just wants to dance.

Billy is the 11-year-old son of coal miner Jackie (Rich Hebert) and brother of Tony (Cullen R. Titmas), another miner. Mum (Molly Garner) has died, though she turns up from time to time in fantasy sequences, but Billy’s spunky Grandma (Patti Perkins) is still around, and has one of the best songs.

The place is Durham County; the time, 1984, the year British prime minister Margaret Thatcher decided to break the union much the way her friend Ronald Reagan had broken the U.S. air traffic controllers’ union three years earlier.

The British miners, like the air traffic controllers, went on strike. And like the controllers, they lost. Much of the play’s action concerns that strike and the miners who would eventually pay for it.

But Billy is the star, a boy who would rather dance than box, a fact he discovers when he hangs around the gym after a disappointing round in the ring and finds it inhabited by Mrs. Wilkinson (Janet Dickinson) and her ballet class.

He likes what he sees. Dad, of course, would think Billy a pouf if he knew, so the boy secretly pays for dance class with the money dad has scraped together for boxing lessons.

Billy finds a compatriot in Michael (Sam Poon), a dancer himself (and a real pouf); the two share some nice scenes including one with a tutu.

“Billy Elliot,” adapted for the stage from the 2000 film, won 10 Tonys and is on a national tour, playing through the weekend at San Diego Civic Theatre.

The story is irrepressible (if predictable), and it’s difficult not to root for Billy (played by Mitchell Tobin in the first act; replaced by Noah Parets in the second). Both kids can dance up a storm (they’re especially fine tap dancers).

I found the film quite charming. The musical is less so: it’s dingy to look at (either the light levels simply weren’t set right or the “industrial” nature of the setting dictated the lighting), the music (by Elton John, who did not score the film) muscular though not particularly memorable (and the sound levels weren’t set right at the top of the show).

American audiences by and large find British regional accents difficult to comprehend. For me, only Dickinson’s Mrs. Wilkinson approached consistently intelligible speech.

On the plus side is Peter Darling’s choreography, which varies from different to wow! My favorite is the dreamlike “Swan Lake” sequence with Billy and his older self (Maximilien A. Baud), which ends with the boy “flying” above the stage. Lovely.

Ian MacNeil’s set design is another plus, cleverly modularized and apparently easy to push on and off the stage, it works wonderfully and saves time in this long show.

Tobin and Parets both make fine Billys, and Poon is excellent as Michael. Dickinson’s Mrs. Wilkinson is a hoot and so is Perkins as Grandma. Hebert and Titmas are convincing as dad and Tony.

My brother warned me before I saw “Hair” – all those eons ago – that if I wanted to enjoy it I’d better learn all the song lyrics because there was little chance I’d understand what was sung onstage.

He was right, and I was reminded of his comment at “Billy Elliot.” Despite that, it’s still an irresistible story.

This touring show is only here (at Civic Theatre) through May 5. Stay past the bows for the wonderful encore dance.

The details

“Billy Elliot” plays through May 5 at San Diego Civic Theatre, Third and B streets, downtown.

Thursday and Friday at 7:30 pm; Saturday at 2 and 7:30 pm; Sunday at 1 and 6 pm.

Tickets: HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.