Dreams At Heart Of 'Billy Elliot The Musical'

Tony Award-Winning Musical At Wharton Center Jan. 15

By Sue Merrell

"Billy Elliot the Musical" is set in 1980s England amid a violent coal miners' strike. One miner's son has a dream to dance, and early in the second act he imagines what his life could be as a ballet dancer.

"It's such a contrast. Everybody's like 'Who's that guy in the tights?'" said ensemble member Christopher Howard.

During the show, which opens Jan. 15 at East Lansing's Wharton Center, Howard portrays both a miner and a cop, but people remember him as the grown up Billy in the dream scene. The guy in tights.

"It's a visually stunning scene," Howard said. "There are so many special effects: dim lights, fog, a flying sequence. It is the climax of Billy's story. This is when he sees what he could be. It's my favorite moment in the show."

Based on the 2000 British film, the Tony Award-winning musical features a score by Elton John and non-stop energetic choreography.

"The show is very well rounded, with many strong points and great messages," said Howard, 26. "There are many different kinds of dance: ballet, tap, partnering. Everyone has something they can connect with."

Even a confrontation between the miners and the cops is told in a dance.

"In the choreography, we link arms and exchange hats at one point," Howard said. "It's about fighting but also about coming together. It has a bit of a message. It shows that we're all the same."

At times the dance is aesthetically shocking, Howard said, because hefty ensemble members in dirty miners' overalls or police uniforms are doing ballet moves.

"You see big burly guys doing pirouettes and you can't believe it," Howard said.

The strike is based on a 1984 situation in County Durham. Historically accurate details help the audience understand how the miners were treated and how they felt, Howard said.

"It makes Billy's struggle more beautiful, more magnificent, because he is doing something outside his community. The resolution is more moving. Everything is very different. Ultimately, his whole life changes. It's a great message. Whatever you do, whether that's dancing or mining, whatever career path you choose, you have to express yourself."

The show also confronts the question of sexual orientation, making it clear in one scene that Billy's love of dance does not mean he is homosexual. But Howard, who is openly gay, believes the story's message of being true to oneself applies in both cases.

"Whether you are struggling with what you want to be or struggling with your sexual orientation, it's important to do what you need to do," Howard said. "We don't get much opportunity to discuss the impact the show has on people, but I assume the story has helped people be a little more confident in themselves. Whether that's a career choice or coming out, this story makes that path a little easier."

Howard grew up in upstate New York, singing and acting in high school productions.

"I encountered a little teasing in high school because I was not playing sports, but I got support from the drama community. And my family was supportive. I knew it was the right path for me."

A musical theater graduate of the State University of New York at Buffalo, Howard also studied with the Joffrey Ballet School.

"I have a deep appreciation of classical ballet," he said.

But unlike Billy Elliot, Howard didn't grow up wanting to dance. He didn't start dancing until he was in college. His dream is to sing.

"Of course, everybody in the ensemble sings along. But I'm usually seen as a dancer. Before 'Billy Elliot,' I just finished doing 'A Chorus Line.' I played Larry, the dance captain who demonstrates every step. A lot of people don't even know I can sing. I want to dance as long as I can, but someday I would like to do a play as a singer and save my body."

"Billy Elliot" is Howard's first national tour.

"The touring life isn't for everybody," he said. "We're flying somewhere when we're not on stage so we don't get a day off. But it's a great way to see the country while doing something you love. Isn't that everybody's dream?"

PREVIEW:

'Billy Elliot the Musical'

Cobb Great Hall at Wharton Center, on the campus of Michigan State University, East Lansing. Jan. 15-20: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. $32-$72. 1-800-WHARTON http://www.whartoncenter.com

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