Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Billy Elliot
Center of Contemporary Arts
Review by Richard T. Green

Declan Ryan and Cast
Photo by Phillip Hamer
My only complaint about this splendid production of Billy Elliot is that it was roughly two hours and forty-five minutes long. Because how much time do you really need to decide if you want to spend the rest of your life in a coal mining town in northern England?

Some equivocation may be par for the course, though, considering that Billy is just eleven years old (played, in this one-weekend staging at COCA, by the delightful Declan Ryan). And it's all set in 1984, like the movie that inspired it, against a backdrop of striking miners—and (in the stage musical version) dancing London bobbies, sent by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, as cartoonish Sharks to their Jets. The book and lyrics are by Lee Hall, with music by Elton John. The labor strife also helps explain the prolonged runtime: as with West Side Story, more than a little time is spent on colorful folk dancing, by strikers and rioters and police. Nancy Bell directs with fine attention to relationships and authenticity; and Christopher Page-Sanders does well with the highly professional adults, and very well with the show's energetic children (COCA is well-known here for its dance classes). But Billy Elliot is also a huge lesson in the changing nature of the economy, and politics. And it's sometimes hard to keep all that afloat.

It's funny, because other shows tackle economics with greater entertainment value. Hands on a Hardbody, The Pajama Game, and Hello, Dolly! make dollars and cents issues seem personal and sprightly, and ultimately populist. As Billy Elliot marks the nonfiction beginning of the end of pay equity in the Western World, economics is merely the dismal science once again.

And yet none of the musical numbers is less than good. A few are actually terrific, thanks to choreographer Page-Sanders and a costuming crew led by Michelle Siler. Billy's introduction to the ballet is a three costume-change extravaganza, where a dance instructor (impeccable Sara Rae Womack) puts him into a spin with a troupe of adorably foul-mouthed little ballerinas, including winsome Jiali Deck as Debby. Parker Collier, admirable as Billy's young friend Michael, leads a huge, spangly musical number about the thrill of cross-dressing, which could rival any Disney animated extravaganza. In quieter moments, Alicia Revé Like is deeply touching as the ghost of Billy's mother, and Duane Martin Foster (as Billy's father) begins as perfectly stoic, gradually becoming a stammering bundle of nerves near the end, as Billy confronts a very different future from his own.

One of Mr. Foster's dramatic moments was not sufficiently entertaining for the lady in front of me, who once again began text-messaging a woman experimenting with a ponytail, even as Billy's dad pondered his own bad life decisions. It's funny how you forget these audience misbehaviors after an eighteen month-long pandemic. The nice lady who gave the curtain speech before-hand similarly forgot the usual warning about cell phone usage during the performance, during her remarks. But it wouldn't have totally solved the problem, as two young women later entered during the show, after a musical number, squeezing into their seats at front row center. The pair then proceeded to play with their large, brightly lit cell phones for much of the first act. Where is Patti LuPone when you need her?

Full disclosure: Declan Ryan is the youngest son of a pair of theater people I enjoyed performing with 20 years ago, though I've only rarely seen them since those days. Here, the youngest Ryan weaves a spell, using simple but true emotions under the direction of the much-admired Nancy Bell. And by the time Billy is auditioning for the Royal Dance Academy in London ("Electricity"), I'd totally forgotten the performer's very professional lineage, and simply marveled at a shimmering new talent.

But there are two grim musical numbers after that, as the three-hour mark for the evening looms. And, as the mood turns bleak once more, we begin to feel like a canary in the coal mine: overcome by invisible gasses. Everyone in this local production has risen fully to the challenge. It is the challenge itself, for society, the economy and politics, which remains painfully in doubt.

Billy Elliot runs through August 1, 2021, at the Center of Contemporary Arts, 524 Trinity Ave., St. Louis MO. There is a new, free parking garage right across the little street. For more information visit

Billy: Declan Ryan
Michael Caffrey: Parker Collier
Debbie Wilkinson: Jiali Deck
Dad: Duane Martin Foster
Tony/Dancer at the Royal Ballet School: John Katz
George/Miner 5/Police/Fight Captain: Bianca Sanborn
Mrs. Wilkinson: Sara Rae Womack
Grandma: Carmen Garcia
Dead Mum/Miner/Young Grandma: Alicia Revé Like
Miner 4/Lesley/Pit Supervisor/Posh Dad/Young Grandad/Police/Dance Captain: JR Pruski
Mr. Wilkinson/Police: Kevin Corpuz
Big Davey/Miner 3/Police/Santa: Carl Overly, Jr.
Mr. Braithwaite/Miner: Will Bonfiglio
Dream Soloist: Antonio Douthit-Boyd
Miner 1/Scab/Woman/Clipboard Woman/Police/Alison Summers: Marie Garlich
Miner 2/Tall Boy/Posh Boy/Police: Trey Perlut
Miner 7/Scab/Police: Jerran Higgins
Tracey Atkinson: Lena Williams
Angela Robson: Lucy Myerscough
Keeley Gibson: Jaida Smith
Susan Parks/Miner 6/Scab: Dekylah Epps
Karen: Norah Brozio
Small Boy: Louis Mallon
Voices of Panelists: Delaney Piggins, Jennifer Winter, JR Pruski

Creative Team
Director: Nancy Bell
Choreographer: Christopher Page-Sanders
Music Director: Colin Healy
Scenic Designer: David Blake
Costume Designer: Claudia Brownlee
Lighting Designer, Technical Director: Jayson Lawshee
Sound Designer: Asha-Ti Nu Tyehimba-Ford
Projections Designer: Jerran Kowalski
Dialect Coach: Jennifer Wintzer
Associate Director & Dramaturg: Gaby Rodriguez
Associate Choreographer & Dance Captain: JR Pruski
Fight Choreographer: Michael Pierce
Fight Captain: Bianca Sanborn
Intimacy Consultant: Jamie McKittrick
Intimacy Consultant & Captain: Delaney Piggins
Production Stage Manager: Jimmy Bernatowicz
Assistant Stage Manager: Emma Prange
Production Assistant & Artistic Intern: Victoria Chauvin

Production Team
Costume Manager: Michele Siler
Props Manager: Joshua Sarris
Master Carpenter: Jacob Stahl
Carpenter, Scenic Charge, & Flight Director: Cameron Tesson
Carpenter: Jacob Cange
Assistant Costume Manager & Wardrobe Supervisor: Brandi White
Assistant Costume Manager & Wardrobe: Dorathy Johnston
Stitcher: Emma Hersom
Child Engagement Coordinator: Michael Tran
Arts as Civic Engagement Fellow: Sophie DeVincenti
Costume & Wardrobe Intern: Sophia Levinson
Light Board Operator: Laila Williams
Sound Intern: Sarah Kaul
Spot Operator: Anna Drake
Spot Operator: Julia Nelson