Waukesha Civic Theatre stuns with powerful musical

By: JULIE McHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

Nov. 1, 2018

Ryan Vanselow as Billy and Maggie Wirth as his grandmother in the Waukesha Civic Theatre production of “Billy Elliot.”
Submitted photo

WAUKESHA - With the infamous coalminers strike in England (1984-85) under Margaret Thatcher’s regime as backdrop, we see two parallel stories unfold - one of men fighting for their survival, and another of a young boy fighting for his right to choose his own life path. Both encounter sizable resistance and elicit our sympathy.

“Billy Elliot,” a film that dazzled many in 2000, opened in London as a stage musical and on Broadway in 2008 with music by Elton John and lyrics by Lee Hall. Deservedly receiving countless awards, it is now delighting many on stages worldwide, including the Waukesha Civic Theatre, a community theater that is known for its sparkling musicals.

How the theater company managed to gather so many talented vocalists and dancers to play all the roles, and to find such a multitalented “wonder boy” to take on the difficult role of Billy, is hard to conceive, but it did. You have to see it to believe it. A cast of 35 graced the stage.

When Billy, after finishing his boxing lesson (an activity he hates), chances upon a group of would-be ballerinas practicing their new steps in the same gym, he becomes intrigued.

The instructor, Sandra Wilkinson, immediately notices his interest and his potential.

His father, Tony, and his older brother, Jack, discover what Billy has been up to behind their backs. Picture these tough coalminers confronted with a young boy whose aspirations are so contrary to their perceptions of “manhood.”

Billy is also suffering the loss of his mother, who recently died. She occasionally appears as his invisible supporter, a role nicely portrayed by Gwen Ter Haar. His grandma is one of the other few supporters he can depend on, along with his dance teacher and his friend Michael.

The choreographer, Ceci Scalish, probably deserves the most notice for her contributions. The ensemble dance numbers are electric, but the work she must have exerted to get Billy, played stunningly by Ryan Vanselow, to his peak performance, is beyond description. Occasionally, it was a bit difficult to hear his spoken lines, but his singing and dancing compensated for that little flaw, and his very expressive face was always fun to watch. He is perfectly suited for this challenging role

Also outstanding are his father, Tony, (Ben Bartos) for his credible agonies and his beautiful vocals (“Deep into the Ground”) as he is joined by his son, Jack, (Corey Patrick), who can powerfully exude emotion. Maggie Wirth, whose acting skills are legend in local theaters, takes over the spotlight as Grandma in her rendition of the song about the pleasure of dancing as a means of escaping her otherwise rather dismal married life.  She gets her share of laughs, too.

Caroline Miller-Bayer as Sandy, the tough-minded dance instructor, is strong as is Liam Thomas as the tortured, lovable Michael, Billy’s friend.  The graceful dance number performed by Alex Vrba as Billy dreams of his own future is stunning, and the boogie managed by Noah Maguire as Mr. Braithwaite is also memorable.

Altogether, the direction by Mark E. Schuster, the costumes designed by Sharon Sohner and the musical direction by Yeng Parman-Thao, all deserve hearty applause. Wow!

“Billy Elliot, The musical” 

The musical runs through Nov. 11 at the Waukesha Civic Theatre, 264 W. Main St., Waukesha.
Call 542-0708 or visit for times and tickets.