A Moving ‘Billy Elliot’

Above: Uzay Hasanusta steps lively in the title role of “Billy Elliot,” opening the 100th season of the newly renovated Des Moines Playhouse.

dsm Theater Review by Michael Morain

“Billy Elliot” has a lot of moving parts and a lot of parts that are moving.

So maybe it’s ironic that one of the most moving moments in the Des Moines Community Playhouse’s new production is almost perfectly still, when the scrappy title character sits in a spotlit chair and sings to the ghost of his mother. While his voice rings out—a little shaky but clear—you’ll start to feel a lump in your throat. Your heart will shift a bit. You will be moved somehow, I promise.

The musical about an 11-year-old boy who stumbles into a ballet class and discovers a hidden talent is a fitting show to open the company’s 100th season. That kind of thing happens all the time at the Playhouse, where the carpet still smells new from a recent top-to-bottom renovation.

But “Billy Elliot” is also a good show for our current political moment, a reminder that even fractured communities can pull together to take care of their own.

The story takes place during a British miners’ strike in the mid-1980s, and when Billy’s gruff dad (Micheal Davenport) can’t afford to take his son to a ballet audition in London, folks on both sides of the picket line pass around a hard hat and quietly pitch in for the cause.

The cast and crew pitch in less quietly for the boisterous show itself. Director John Viars, musical director Brenton Brown and choreographer Megan Helmers have coached the 42-member cast into an effective team, where squadrons of police officers and coal miners share the stage with a gang of fidgety girls in white tutus. “Solidarity,” the biggest number in Elton John’s score, plays out like an elaborate game of Red Rover. (According to a 2004 British press report, the rock icon “was so moved by the hit British film Billy Elliot that he agreed immediately to write the songs for the musical version. … Sir Elton said the theme of a father failing to understand the artistic aspirations of his son had mirrored his own upbringing.”)

Several fine individual performances emerge from the tumult, including Billy’s addled granny (the excellent Mary Bricker), his tough-love dance teacher (Rachel Meyer) and his best friend (Ryan Henzi), who loves dressing up in his sister’s clothing and helps Billy belt out the show’s main message.

“If you wanna be a dancer, dance,” they sing together. “If you wanna be a miner, mine. If you want to dress like somebody else, fine, fine fine.”

That’s not exactly an original idea, but you’d be hard-pressed to find it told in a more authentic way. What made a hit out of the 2000 movie, won 10 Tony Awards for the 2008 Broadway musical, and now makes the local production so good—and so moving—is how ordinary Billy is.

Here, the role is shared by Uzay Hasanusta (the son of Ballet Des Moines co-founders Serkan Usta and Lori Grooters) and the earnest Asher Ekhardt, who, in the performance I saw, seemed like any other kid with a messy room and a pain-in-the-neck big brother (Nic Lovan).

But that’s why down-to-earth Billy leaps to such heights.

“Billy Elliot: The Musical” runs through Oct. 28 at the Des Moines Community Playhouse. $29-$46, with discounts for seniors and students. www.dmplayhouse.com

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