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Theater review: Cheers and tears await in 'Billy Elliot'

The cast of "Billy Elliot" rehearses a musical number on Tuesday. The show kicks off July 13 at the Duluth Playhouse. Mike Krebs / mkrebs@duluthnews.com

"Billy Elliot: The Musical" will make you cheer, cry — and do both more than once.

The heart and soul of this endearing Playhouse production directed by Kelly Grussendorf is Tanner Hagen in the title role. On opening night, the 12-year-old simply blew the audience away with his dancing and delivered on the singing, as well.

On strike in northern England, Billy's coal miner dad (Jason Scorich) still gives him 50 pence for boxing lessons. Billy has to stay after class to give the keys to Mrs. Wilkinson (a brassy and bossy Jennifer Madill Hagen, aka the lead's off-stage stage mom), who gives dancing lessons to seven young ballerinas in bright pink tutus.

Badgered to participate, Billy gets his first dance move right, and he's hooked and on the threshold of a new life.

But beyond the bigoted assumption by family and friends that any male ballet dancer is a "pouf," there is the practical problem that a fancy ballet school costs more money than a striking coal miner is ever going to have.

My memory of the original movie is that Billy was rather gawky, but while Hagen's Billy is hesitant at first, it's clear from the start he is a baby swan.

Solo dance routines are ultra-rare in musicals, and Hagen gets to do two of them, plus a pair of tandem dances and a trio number. Amber Burns does a nice job of providing choreography for a "dancing boy," emphasizing young Billy is a star in the making, from the raw passion of "Angry Dance" to the powerful elegance of "Electricity."

The supporting cast has several nice moments to shine.

Jesse Davis plays an enthusiastically brutish boxing instructor while scene stealing Sharon "Rosie" Salo is a hoot delivering "Grandma's Song." Ben Robinson provides a surprising turn when Mr. Braithwaite gets up from behind his piano in "Born to Boogie."

All the kids do a great job, with Abrianna Schmidt channeling Jane Withers as Debbie. Aidan Saillard joins Hagen for the show's personal anthem and tap dancing extravaganza, "Expressing Yourself."

The music is by Elton John, but the lyrics by Lee Hall are the stronger part of the score. The choral work by the ensemble is stellar, capped off by the gorgeous final section of "Once We Were Kings." Curtis Phillips' scenic design is a rhapsody of brown bricks, wood and rusted steel against a blue-lit backdrop.

The only missteps are that while the accents are accurate, there are times when what is being said or sung is incomprehensible.

But what you will remember is when Billy shares "The Letter" his Dead Mum (Alyson Enderle) wrote to him with Mrs. Wilkinson, and Billy's dad turns "Deep Into the Ground" from a song about working in the mines to one about the wife he has buried. Then, there is the "Dream Ballet," where Billy dances with his future self (Brayden Guentzel).

Considered yourself warned. You will cry and in the end. You will stand and cheer Tanner Hagen and "Billy Elliot."

If you go

• What: "Billy Elliot: The Musical"

• When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through July 30

• Where: Duluth Playhouse, 506 W. Michigan St.

• Tickets: $32 adults, $27 students. Call (218) 733-7555 or duluthplayhouse.org

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