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June 17, 2014

14-year-old actor wows 'Billy Elliott' audience at Muny

At age 14, Tade Biesinger created as many big moments on the Muny stage opening night as legends of stage and screen have had during its illustrious 96 years.

Portraying the title character in "Billy Elliot," Biesinger commanded that big space in a remarkably light, fluid, joyous way -- wowing the crowd with every complex dance number. He just might be the Best Kid Performer Ever in a Muny production.

When Billy and an older version of himself, Maximilien Baud, dance "Swan Lake" in Act Two, it is absolutely breathtaking, a genuine magical number that people will remember for years.

International ballet dancer Baud's grace and artistry is matched by the young lad's suppleness, and their elegance together -- especially with the stunning aerial work -- is a scene of uncommon beauty.

The boy's role is a demanding one. Not only must he master complicated dances, but he has to sing well and act like a normal kid. He's believable in the depicted struggles, and nails a tricky Northern England dialect.

As organic as his portrayal is, it's no surprise then that Biesinger played the role on Broadway and London's West End.

His experience helped the production soar, but the musical -- even with its 10 Tony Awards pedigree -- still has some wonky issues. The Elton John score is rather pedestrian, although "Born to Boogie" and "He Could Go and He Could Shine" are splashy numbers.

The musical combines the story of a poor motherless child, fascinated by dance at an early age, and how he is nurtured by a local ballet teacher.

It's the mid-'80s -- his father and brother are on strike at the coal mine, and the economic impact is dire. But the community rallies round to support Billy's shot at the Royal Ballet School, his ticket out of the hardscrabble town.

The show's themes of family, brotherhood and following your heart are easily identifiable, but at times the plot is stretched too far, especially with its nearly 3-hour run time.

The first act is hard to follow, as the audience attempts to decipher British slang, and understand what exactly is going on with all the tap and interpretive dances in a story about a ballet dancer.

But dancing is first and foremost, and the very best part. Peter Darling's sensational original choreography has been vividly recreated by Alison Levenberg.

Of course the Muny has to put its own mega-stamp on things, expanding numbers with large ensembles and the Gateway Men's Chorus.

Swansea's Michael Harp, who has already been performing there for years, has a scene-stealing song-and-dance number, "Expressing Yourself." He is a natural on stage, and quite strong as Michael, Billy's best friend with a penchant for dressing in girl's clothing.

The formidable ensemble features impressive Broadway "Billy Elliot" veterans Daniel Oreskes, as the father, Jackie Elliot; Emily Skinner, as mentor Mrs. Wilkinson, and Patti Perkins, as Grandma.

Local favorites Steve Isom and Ben Nordstrom skillfully disappear into their roles as pal George and Billy's brother Tony.

Metro-east residents include O'Fallon High student Isaiah Lopez in the youth ensemble and Belleville East grad Carlton LaRoy Lee in the Gateway Men's Chorus. Tadhg Duhigg's dad lives in Worden.

Another showstopper is "The Angry Dance," even if it is incredibly busy with the rotating staircase at first, then settles down for a powerful exhibit of might by the riot police.

Billy's explosion of feelings in "Electricity" heightens excitement for his future, then the show takes its sweet time wrapping up. The musical's flashes of brilliance are hampered by its uneven rhythms and rough transitions, but that's evidently its construction.

The elaborate curtain call, a buoyant dance number called "Company Celebration," is confusing for those who want to applaud the actors in a traditional way. While Biesinger received thunderous ovations, it seemed he was shortchanged in that regard.

I've been attending the Muny for half of its existence, and reviewing the shows for six seasons, and I can't recall a more extraordinary child performer on stage than Biesinger. I saw the great Rudolf Nureyev on that stage, Mikhail Baryshnikov was here too, and the show's dance numbers Monday were as good as it gets.

We'll be talking about this marvelous spectacle for a long time. "Billy Elliot" takes flight on blissfully happy feet.

"Billy Elliot"

When: 8:15 nightly through June 22

Nightly through June 22

Where: The Muny Opera in Forest Park

Tickets at, at Muny box office or MetroTix 314-534-1111

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