The musical adaptation of 2000's sleeper hit film Billy Elliot must survive on the actor hired for the title role. As well as leading nine songs, it's a heavy dancing part, requiring one to shine in tap, ballet, and interpretive dance. To make it more daunting, the lead actor must be an adolescent. That's a heavy burden, and youngster Mitchell Tobin makes a winning Billy. He steals hearts and dances like a star. Unfortunately, the production at La Mirada Theatre itself lacks innovation.
Following the original movie's screenplay, young Billy lives in a town ravaged by the U.K. mining strike of the mid-1980s. His father and brother are out of work, as are most in the town, and the anger over the current government, particularly PM Margaret Thatcher, seeps into everything like a thick fog. Billy is growing up without a mother, but he finds a maternal figure in Mrs. Wilkinson (Vicki Lewis), a dance teacher who recognizes the boy's innate talent. She fosters Billy's dancing abilities and pushes him to audition for the Royal Ballet in London. Once his father (David Atkinson) discovers his son's secret, however, there is hell to pay.
Tobin, who played Billy in London and on the U.S. tour, is blazing in the title role. He evokes the frustration of a boy mourning his mother's death and the consternation of being passionate for something he knows is stereotypically unmanly. Because Tobin is reaching puberty, the actor has lost his upper register and strains in the solo vocal numbers, but this becomes an asset for the role, adding vulnerability to the character. Atkinson lets the audience witness his character's evolution from a gruff, stalwart common man to one accepting and loving of his child, despite their different interests. Vicki Lewis is one of L.A.'s most fiery presences. As the harried Mrs. Wilkinson, she sings the role well and manages the mannerisms and accent of a Northeastern-English woman, but she seems disengaged. There's a flatness to her portrayal that does not endear her to the audience.
The direction by Brian Kite is tame. In numbers like "Expressing Yourself" and "We Were Born to Boogie," the cast appears to mug for the audience as opposed to letting the audience come to them. The opening number, which is supposed to deliver a powerful punch in the gut, is static and devoid of impact, with the striking miners just sitting gloomily in the protest waiting room. The ensemble scenes with the miners lack purpose and focused direction. They seem mostly to just wander about. The mother's scenes could have been staged more cleverly rather than having the ghost of Billy's mum (played by Kim Huber) simply walking in from the side of the stage. This role, meant to give Billy support from beyond the grave, lacked an ethereal presence.
Musical Director John Glaudini crisply conducts an orchestra that sounds great in both the upbeat numbers and folk medleys, but Glaudini does not get texture from the singing chorus. In many numbers, the mostly male ensemble members sound like they're all singing the same notes, instead of creating the sweeping harmonies that the songs require. The choreography by Dana Solimado is scattered and stiff. The dancers are disorderly and lack precession.
Billy Elliot relies heavily on its cast and direction, and Mitchell Tobin, who possesses the talent of several adults, gives audiences someone about whom we care deeply. However, resting an entire musical on the shoulders of one actor is not enough. Had La Mirada Theatre's production felt fresher and expanded beyond the focus of the cast, Billy Elliot could have had a much greater impact.