Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Pictured: Shanésia Davis, Jacob Kaiser, and ensemble. Photo by Michael Courier
By Bec Willett
It’s always an interesting experience attending performances primarily filled with board members, patrons, and supporters of that theater. A sense of the community around a production is always felt but with this type of audience, it’s undeniable. Such was the case at Porchlight’s production of BILLY ELLIOT, Elton John’s rich musical based on the film where a British working class boy becomes a ballet dancer.
In contrast to the staid stereotypes often assigned by many young theatremakers (including myself) this older ‘patron of the arts’ audience was full of enthusiasm and excitement. During the show, all attention was directed at the stage, but before and after is a different story. A respectful but joyous hubbub prevails as coffee dates are set, sincere outbursts of praise for the show’s talents erupt on restroom breaks, and passionate accolades are sprinkled on past performers. It feels like a meeting place – just as I imagine theater would have felt for the Greeks. It isn’t an energy that only remains in the audience but one that seems so imbued into the culture of the company that it was also found on the stage. In fact, it was this joy of performance that fueled this BILLY ELLIOT so far as to make it one of the most enjoyable pieces of musical theater I’ve seen in Chicago.
Just as with Hamlet or Annie, one of the most important and difficult tasks of putting up a production of Billy Elliot is finding your Billy. He must be able to act, speak in a dialect, dance well enough to be believably considered for the Royal Ballet, and of course be able to sing – no easy task for a boy at the age of twelve. They clearly got very lucky. Jacob Kaiser’s boundless energy, charisma, and technical skill made his Billy a joy to watch and every bit the heart of the show that he should be. Sean Fortunato as Billy’s stoic father and Adam Fane as Billy’s headstrong brother round out the Elliot men who (much to my delight) manage to deal with the British dialect, humor, and the old age struggles of class and gender constructs – all while still making these characters grounded and relatable. To various degrees, this groundedness continued throughout the cast thanks to Brenda Didier’s seamless direction which meticulously balances every moment of humor and heartache.
Many of the most successful choices in this production were those that don’t reflect the original. BILLY ELLIOT is often cast with predominantly white actors, with characters such as Mrs Wilkinson portrayed by ginger-haired white women, which in of itself is based on the film’s portrayal by Julie Walters. Porchlight’s production features a diverse cast, including black actor Shanésia Davis as Mrs Wilkinson, whose portrayal – both as an actor and a singer – is stunning: perfectly timed, earthy and nuanced.
Porchlight’s production may not be perfect but it doesn’t need to be to be outstanding. The joy on stage, due in no small part to the culture of the community, makes this BILLY ELLIOT a delight to watch.
BILLY ELLIOT runs through November 19th. For more information visit PorchlightMusicTheatre.org.