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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Building a musical—literally: BILLY ELLIOT at DPAC

Posted by on Thu, Oct 28, 2010 at 8:33 AM

Michael Dameski, one of five actors sharing the title role, performing during a press preview
In its first two years, Durham Performing Arts Center has hosted the professional touring versions of 12 Broadway musicals. But the demands of number 13, BILLY ELLIOT, which opens this Saturday, Oct. 30, have posed a set of challenges new to the venue.

It’s forced DPAC to go dark for a month and a half—the longest period of inactivity since the center opened in November 2008. It’s converted the building’s spacious lobbies—on all four stories—into rehearsal spaces for the cast and orchestra. The loading dock now stands as an ad hoc carpentry shop.

Meanwhile, the orchestra section of the theater, which was seen by local media on Oct. 14, resembles some theatrical equivalent of NASA’s venerable Mission Control. Some 21 separate "command centers," tables littered with an impressive array of desktops and laptops, headsets and control consoles for house lighting, sound and automation—the computerized hydraulics that will expedite complicated scene changes on and off stage—are scattered throughout the audience area; one or more for every major subsystem of the production. A current of focused energy runs through the room as Stephen Daldry, the director of the original stage productions (as well as the film that inspired them) cues the beginning of a scene during a press preview.

You’d be right to assume that this much trouble doesn’t go into the average bus-and-truck production at DPAC. But then, BILLY ELLIOT isn’t one. Instead, it’s the first professional-grade touring production to actually be constructed—literally, from the ground up—at DPAC, prior to what its backers plan for as a national tour.

Wardrobe takes over part of DPACs main lobby as BILLY ELLIOT prepares for opening night.
The original production about the precocious coal miner’s child who trades in his boxing gloves for ballet shoes — assisted by a dynamite score by Sir Elton John — is now well into its fifth year on stage in London, the Broadway version that swept the 2009 Tony Awards is just entering its third year, and a non-English-speaking version is currently running in South Korea. A version built for extended runs opened in Chicago in March. It moves to Toronto in January, 2011 and San Francisco next September.

That company's strong opening, along with continued demand in New York, convinced producers that another touring company was needed in America—one that could play briefer runs in cities and then fit into a manageable convoy of trucks and buses.

It’s not the kind of thing you can buy off the shelf. You have to build it—and then hope they buy the tickets. That’s what’s been taking place in Durham since mid-September.

A cast of 49 actors, dancers and singers—including five young teenaged boys who’ll trade off playing the title role during various performances—have convened here from New York, Australia and Switzerland to build a show that is slated to travel to Cleveland, Charlotte and at least 9 other cities from Florida to Washington state between November and August of next year.

The only clouds on that horizon? The closing of BILLY ELLIOT’s extended run in Chicago, two months earlier than expected, which was announced last week in the Chicago Tribune. Still, that production will have lasted eight months in the Windy City when it folds. By comparison, the longest scheduled stands for the company in Durham involve four-week runs in Denver, Minneapolis and Dallas.

Of course, in this economy, any entertainment venture is a gamble—and not all gambles pay off. That was the case with PANDEMONIUM, the follow-up production by the creators of STOMP, which abruptly cancelled its scheduled national tour after its Raleigh dates at the beginning of October, due to soft ticket sales in that show’s first two cities.

Which makes BILLY ELLIOT the second production this month to place a multi-million dollar wager on what local audiences will do with a large show that hopes to travel.

We’ll see where the chips land this next week.

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