Smile Politely

Broadway comes to town with Billy Elliot

I’ve always wanted to see a production on Broadway — but can’t afford it. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be pleased to know the smash-hit musical Billy Elliot will be making its regional premiere at the Twin City Theatre Company. Opening Night is August 25th, with shows running until September 3rd at the Harold and Jean Miner Theatre at Parkland College.

Heralded as “A triumph! The #1 show of the year!” by TIME Magazine, Billy Elliot follows a young boy as he trades in his boxing gloves for dancing shoes. In an unforgettable story set in a small mining town in the English countryside, a dance teacher finds a diamond in the rough when she discovers Billy — a young boy with a passion for dance who inspires the entire community. I have not seen the musical — only the movie. I’ve been told by some cast members, we’re in for a treat.

Billy Elliot is directed by original Broadway cast member Donnie Kehr (Billy Elliot, Jersey Boys, The Who’s Tommy, The Mystery of Edwin Drood) — who will be in attendance on opening night — along with musical direction by Noah Scott Larson and choreography by Whitney Havice. Billy Elliot has won 10 Tony Awards and 10 Drama Desk Awards, including Best Musical. The production features a score by Elton John (The Lion King, Aida) with book and lyrics by Lee Hall, who wrote the screenplay for the Academy Award-nominated film that inspired the musical.

I sat down with members of the cast and crew and got to know a bit about them and their theater background, as well as each of their takes on this exciting production.

Choreographer Whitney Havice has done over 50 shows, including Pippin, Reefer Madness, Evil Dead: The Musical, and Jesus Christ Superstar, to name a few. She feels a certain connection with the character Mrs. Wilkinson, noting, “I feel a connection to her character in that she is trying to really dig in and get her dance students to go beyond the steps and really connect emotionally to what they’re doing when they dance to themselves and to a potential audience, especially when it comes to Billy. That’s something that I do when I teach, as well”.

Costume designer Sheri Doyle can add Billy Elliot to her list of productions, and this will be her 20th show she’s dressed. She says theater doesn’t run in her family — but I’m inclined to disagree. With all four of her children either acting, working backstage, or creating sets — it seems they have it in their blood: “I can’t say it runs in the family, but we thrive on it. My children are very creative and they found a way to explore that through theater”. 

With a cast from all over Central Illinois, the title role of Billy will be played by 12-year-old Tanner Carlson-Huber (pictured right) from Normal, who has a background in ballet and tap. This is his first big production, and he’s very excited and overwhelmed. “I expected this much work, but the whole experience is really just amazing, overwhelming, but I can’t wait to see what opportunities I might have in the future.”

Ashley Giberson stars as well as Mrs. Wilkinson. Giberson is a chorus instructor at Unity High School, and she’s thrilled to be cast as the sassy dance teacher who helps Billy realize that he is a much better ballet dancer than a boxer. This is not Giberson’s first musical — she’s been cast in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee as Olive. Last summer, she was in American Idiot playing Heather, and sometime ago she was cast as Amber in Hairspray. Giberson enlightens, “For me it’s a major challenge, especially with this character (Mrs. Wilkinson) singing, dancing, speaking in rhythm throughout the large group numbers. It’s an extensive amount of lines with a specific accent of a specific region.”

This will be Assistant Stage Manager Chandler Dalton’s biggest theater production, although she’s worked on 20 productions, including one of my favorites High School Musical. She is electrified to be working with Donnie Ker. “Getting to work with an amazing director is another exciting thing, someone from Broadway, someone this talented, and here in Champaign on the Parkland stage. I’m very excited for that!”

Producer Mike Galloway has worked on 100 productions. Singing, acting, directing, producing — he loves it all, but it can be tasking producing a play on this level.

“Watching everything come together from the idea of what show to do to Opening Night, it’s very stressful, but I love what I do.” Galloway and Kehr (Kehr pictured left) have a 20-year-old friendship, they support each other and working together is “truly a dream”.

Galloway wanted to do Billy Elliot last season but something else was decided. When this season came round Billy was at the top of the list. I asked Galloway if he could produce anything with three actors — dead or alive, with an unlimited budget — what it would that look like: “It would have to be John Belushi, Chris Farley and Gary Oldman. It would be a comedy/drama with John and Chris as police searching for the baddest criminal on the planet (Gary). That’s my first thought. I’m sure as soon as I turn this in I’ll think of something better. [laughs]

Billy Elliot opens August 25th with shows running until September 3rd. The performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights are at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets for Billy Elliot are available by contacting Twin City Theatre Company at 217-353-5282 or visit them online.

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