McLean High School
The muffled shouts of protesters and policemen introduce us to the English coal miners' strike of the 1980s; tensions are high, money is tight, and patience is thin. Meanwhile, as these strikers fight with solidarity for their right to work, a young boy also fights for his right to dance. West Potomac traded boxing gloves for ballet shoes in their production of Billy Elliot, inspiring us all to follow our dreams and dance our hearts out along the way.
Billy Elliot began as a 2000 film, based upon AJ Cronin's 1935 novel The Stars Look Down. The first musical adaptation premiered in 2005 in London's West End, with music by the renowned Elton John. Upon its arrival to Broadway in 2008, Billy Elliot the Musical garnered ten Tony Awards, including a win for Best Musical. The story follows the 1980s UK miners' strike. Amidst the chaos and strife of rebellion, a young boy named Billy Elliot falls in love with the grace of ballet, despite his father's pressure to pursue boxing. The musical chronicles two simultaneous struggles: Billy's struggle to achieve his dream of dance, and the miners' struggle to achieve their dream of a successful riot.
Although Franco Cabanas is still in middle school, his performance as Billy Elliot was no less powerful than that of a high schooler's. Cabanas tackled the challenging choreography with remarkable technical prowess and passion. Additionally, Cabanas defined completely believable relationships with the older actors onstage, allowing both the heart-wrenching and heart-warming moments to unfold organically. His scenes with his father (Jonathan Barger) were particularly touching. In his own right, Barger was clearly also a skilled performer. Not only did Barger maintain a convincing Geordie accent from start to finish, he also performed with clear emotional dexterity; Barger allowed his powerful and combative persona to crumble, revealing streaks of vulnerability and paternalism. Tony (Tony Lemus) and Grandma (Frankie Mananzan) rounded out the Elliot family, Lemus with his striking intensity and Mananzan with her maternal demeanor.
Yet another notable performer was Josh Stein as Mr. Braithwaite and Older Billy. Stein's performance as Braithwaite provided bursts of comedy and wonderfully skilled dancing, especially when tap dancing while jump-roping. As Mr. Braithwaite's dance class companion, Mrs. Wilkinson (Adrianna DeLorenzo) also demonstrated commendable dancing abilities, all the while maintaining strong vocals.
The miners ensemble together portrayed the struggle and hardship of a strike with emotional depth and unity. This was especially noticeable in "Solidarity," which the actors delivered with power and intention.
One especially noteworthy feat of this production was the entirely student done Dream Ballet. The starry backdrop, graceful choreography, and exceptional use of a fly system that allowed Cabanas to (safely) soar through the air all combined to create an absolutely gorgeous sequence that wholly captured the essence of Billy's dream. Throughout the production, the lighting design was executed with clean and precise transitions, and also impressively adhered to the mood of each scene. The costume crew also had a difficult task set before them, with a large ensemble and numerous costume changes, and the team was certainly up to the challenge; the revolving array of costumes were all period and character appropriate. The choreography was another laudable technical element. Even during crowded dance numbers, when the dancing could easily be cluttered, the movement was crisp and engaging.
From start to finish, the students of West Potomac danced their way into our hearts. Their rendition of Billy Elliot was an impactful reminder to reach for the stars in times of hardship.
George Mason High School
Art holds the power of liberation. Liberation from expectations, from pain, from the ills of society. In West Potomac High School's electric production of "Billy Elliot," a boy on the cusp of manhood, surrounded by conflict of class and family, finds his own liberation in a pointed toe and a perfect pirouette.
Based on the 2000 film of the same name, "Billy Elliot" leaped onto London's West End in 2005 and quickly became a worldwide phenomenon, crossing the pond to Broadway in 2008. With book by Lee Hall and music by Elton John, the show follows young Billy as – after getting caught up in a rowdy ballet class after his own unhappy boxing lesson – he discovers and pursues his love for the art of dance. Meanwhile, the men of Billy's Liverpool neighborhood, including his father and brother, put down their pickaxes for an exhausting year-long miners' strike. The two stories interweave to form a complex treatise on the importance of community and standing firm in the battle for one's rights – the right to dance, or the right to work.
West Potomac High School has delivered a polished, emotionally mature, and visually captivating production. In a musical so deeply entrenched in the theme of group camaraderie, a strong ensemble is vital, and this sizeable cast met that need perfectly. From the hoard of squealing ballet girls to the deeply moving and vocally powerful brotherhood of miners, every performer possessed their own unique character while maintaining the necessary cohesion for larger, full-cast musical numbers. Dance moves wowed across the board, with complex, layered choreography executed with smooth skill and boundless energy.
The leading role of Billy Elliot himself was stunningly performed by Franco Cabanas. His precocious talent for ballet was breathtaking, as were his pure, crystalline vocals. Cabanas also maintained beautiful, layered relationships with his fellow cast members, highlighting the vitality of family, friendship, and mentorship. Most striking of all was the paternal chemistry between Billy and his father, played by Jonathan Barger. The pair gave a nuanced representation of the fierce devotion, sacrifice, and frustration of a parent-child bond. Barger himself presented perhaps the most poignant performance of the night, with a realistic depiction of a widower fighting for both his family and his livelihood.
The talent pool at West Potomac was deep, with numerous supporting cast members making lasting impressions. Adrianna DeLorenzo gave a commanding performance as Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy's bold, good-hearted dance teacher. She showed strong vocals in musical numbers such as "The Letter," in which she displayed a lovely emotional capacity while reading out the last message of Billy's deceased mother. Josh Stein, meanwhile, offered an outlandish humor and fantastic dance skill as the ballet studio's pianist Mr. Braithwaite. His simultaneous tap dancing and jump-roping left mouths agape.
This production was tied together by the work of its designers and crew members. Lighting cues were crisp, adding atmosphere to moments such as the miners' return to work, a golden glow on their faces. Special effects also thrilled, particularly in the awe-inspiring "Dream Ballet" as Billy danced with his older self. The crew utilized a harness and pulley system to allow Billy to literally soar through the air, elegantly spinning against a backdrop of stars. Finally, student choreographer Natalie Edwards handled this dance-heavy show stupendously, creating delightful stage pictures through the interaction of ballerinas, miners, and policemen in musical numbers such as "Solidarity."
West Potomac High School's production of "Billy Elliot" was truly special. As Billy's shout of "I'm free!" rang out, the audience's hearts felt a little freer, too.