Billy Elliot at Phoenix Theatre Is the Must-See Show of the Holiday Season

Billy Elliot: The Musical is set in County Durham, a village in northeastern England where everyone is explosively grouchy. You can tell they’re mad all the time because they yell constantly and punctuate every sentence with the phrase “Piss off!” And you can tell their story in song is being told by Phoenix Theatre because every musical number is played directly to the audience, a long-held tradition of this company and of this production’s talented director.

The Durham villagers are upset because they’re poor and because the coal miner’s strike of 1984 is making them even poorer. Poverty is hard, although not as hard as being an 11-year-old boy who wants to study dance in a town where guys are expected to learn boxing. Billy Elliot has been secretly taking ballet classes from Mrs. Wilkinson until his father finds out and makes him stop. Mr. Elliot is especially cross: He’s a striking coal miner whose wife is dead, which doesn’t prevent her from occasionally visiting her son when no one else is around.

When he’s not learning to rond de jambe or singing duets with his deceased mother, Billy hangs out with his best friend, Michael, who is a homosexual. We know Michael is gay because he wears frocks, owns a Barbie, and punctuates with his eyebrows. Mrs. Wilkinson, who smokes cigarettes and screams at little girls for being fat, convinces Billy’s dad to let him audition for the Royal Ballet School in London. Mr. Elliot hollers angrily and then stomps off to attend a miner’s riot, after which Mrs. Wilkinson shrieks with rage and runs off somewhere else. Billy tops them both with a colossal temper tantrum proving no one in County Durham is as angry as a kid who wants to demi-plié but can’t.

For the next year, Billy gives up degage. (That’s a ballet pun.) One night after a party, he caves in and performs a fantasy sequence with a grownup version of himself who’s wearing a Spandex singlet. Billy’s dad sees him dancing and, impressed by his son’s soutenu and the effects of an offstage smoke machine, agrees to let Billy attend this year’s Royal Ballet audition. Billy’s travel expenses are paid by the miners, who have suddenly decided the heck with colliery closures; little boys in toe shoes are what they should be fighting for. Billy aces his audition, kisses his gay boyfriend goodbye, and heads offstage to a happily-ever-after, probably scored by Tim Rice or Cliff Richard and — if Phoenix Theatre gets hold of it — performed straight out into the audience.

The many delightful performances in this production are trumped by Matthew Dean’s magnificent Billy. His en pointe is polished, his singing is superb, and “Angry Dance,” in which he explodes into a ball of fury, is worth, as the saying goes, the price of admission. Maria Amorocho’s joyful take on “Grandma’s Song” makes it a showstopper. Chris Eriksen’s emotive singing transforms a sleepy folk song into a deeply moving tribute. Jeffrey Middleton’s big-voiced Big Davey is hard to miss. And charming Ross Nemeth, who plays fey Michael, stomps off joyfully with every scene he’s in. Sam Hay’s skillful choreography makes even non-dancers appear poised, and director Michael Barnard, when he isn’t re-creating a musical police lineup, brings his usual panache to the proceedings. You have likely already seen a production of A Christmas Carol; make Billy Elliot your holiday theater outing this year.

Billy Elliot continues through January 1 at 100 East McDowell Road. Visit or call 602-254-2151.
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela