Review: A terrific 'Billy Elliot' at Media

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Brandon Ranalli, 13, as Billy Elliot in "BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL" at the Media Theatre, Nov. 18-Jan. 3.

A quick recap of Billy Elliot: The Musical: Brandon Ranalli, who played the title character on opening night (he alternates performances with Gunar Daniels), gives an exceptional performance in what is one of the best productions I have seen at the Media Theatre in more than two decades of attending shows there.

That said, from a book perspective, Lee Hall's script offers a rather thin narrative retelling - strange, given that he wrote the 2000 film. The show's text simply assumes its own clichés, those of a working-class English boy anguishing over his dead Mum (Elisa Matthews, as lovely in voice as ever), finding a hidden talent by ditching the boxing class he deplores for ballet, while navigating the hypermasculine world of striking British coal miners (they're all striking in this cast), and maintaining a mutually supportive friendship with his dress-wearing chum, Michael (Nathan Esser on opening night, alternating with JD Triolo throughout the run).

I'd argue that if you haven't seen the movie, you might feel lost trying to understand bits of the subplots. Although Esser gives a thrilling performance in song and (especially tap) dance, the secret-concealing friendship between the two boys appears suddenly in full bloom without any sense of development.

However, from a thematic standpoint, director Geoffrey Goldberg's show inspires in its juxtaposition of the numbing conditions of the working class and the emotionally cathartic power that dance can offer to a young boy starved by circumstance and searching for an outlet.

He finds that outlet in Mrs. Wilkinson's (Anne Connors) after-school ballet classes at 50 pence per session, something akin to what you might have found at a YMCA in 1984, the year in which the musical is set. Connors, like a street busker, offers a deep performance that embodies the hardscrabble exterior of an aesthete peddling her wares, delivering with verve an evening of lines filled with more blisteringly funny retorts than a stage comedian. She balances this tough exterior against a tenderness tethered to the hope that one young child might escape economic and intellectual blights.

Goldberg's choreography captivates, whether in the aforementioned tap number and an aggressive foot-stomping ensemble piece or in "Born to Boogie," an electrifying number featuring Connors, Ranalli, and Steven Ciapanna as Mr. Braithwaite, the put-upon pianist at the ballet sessions.

In his dancing, Ranalli first falters, like a calf finding its footing, then flourishes, taking simple cues to extend his arm and evolving before us into a portrait of poise and grace. He pounds and pounces through the Act One showstopper "Angry Dance" before finding the fullness of release that art can provide in "Electricity," composer Elton John and lyricist Hall's homage to dance's transformative power, a promise that Media's production expertly fulfills.


THEATER REVIEW

Billy Elliot: The Musical

Through Jan. 3 at the Media Theatre, 104 E. State Street, Media.

Tickets: $25-$42.

Information: 610-891-0100 or mediatheatre.org.