Thirteen-year-old Liam Redford has been preparing most of his life for his starring role in “Billy Elliot: The Musical,” the Seacoast Repertory Theatre’s new production about a boy who faces family doubts, gender stereotypes and community strife in an English mining town as he pursues his passion as a dancer.
Liam Redford is a New Jersey resident who started dancing when he was seven and has played as Billy in two previous productions. The fictional character’s path mirrors his own in some ways, he said, while the production sends a valuable message of acceptance and community bonds.
“It was definitely a struggle to train. I was the only male in the room. But that made me stronger as a dancer, to prove of myself, that boys can dance too,” he said.
“Billy Elliot” opens Feb. 8 at the Seacoast Rep as the first mainstage production of the 2019 season. The show, with music by Elton John and story by Lee Hall, has won top awards in London and on Broadway. It is based on the movie by the same name, which was also written by Hall.
Billy Elliot is set in 1984-1985, as 11-year old Billy’s hometown is riven by a doomed coal miner’s strike that was a defining battle against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s conservative agenda. At the same time, Billy’s family is shattered by his mother’s death and stresses that the strike is placing on his miner father.
Amid the turmoil, Billy happens upon a dance class in the building where he takes boxing lessons – an accepted path of masculine expression in his town – and develops a passion for dancing. The story depicts, with anger and exuberance, Billy’s journey to winning his father’s acceptance and his community’s support to enroll at the Royal Ballet School in London.
“It shows you what we will do for those we love,” said Rachel Bertone, director and choreographer of the Seacoast Rep’s production. Bertone is a theater and dance professor at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee and is on the dance faculty at Emerson College. She also helped recruit most of the cast for Billy Elliot, bringing about 20 fresh faces to the Seacoast Rep for the production.
At the center of the cast is Liam Redford.
“Liam really understands this role of Billy. He’s incredibly passionate about dance and about the arts,” Bertone said. “That spirit, that fire that’s in Liam, is what’s in Billy too.”
Liam began his performance training on a cheer squad when he was about five or six, said his mother, Kim. He started dancing two years later, and made it his main pursuit when he was nine. “As soon as there is an audience, he comes to life,” Kim Redford said of her son.
His dance training has included work in New Jersey, New York – with the Joffrey Ballet School, Seattle and Philadelphia. He is also improving his acting and singing skills. “As an adult, I hope to still do the dance side of theater, but still be able to do musical theater,” he said.
Liam’s father, Charles Redford, said that like Billy Elliot’s father in the story, he had to overcome doubts about the direction of his son’s passion.
“I can relate to the dad. When he first started with cheer I was hesitant and I was not sure how that would work out,” he said. “Fortunately, my wife, Kim, was there to help get me to see the light. I’ve come the full journey, to be fully supportive and proud of what my son’s doing.”
“No matter how times I’ve seen him perform this role … I still get choked up and teary-eyed,” he said.
The Seacoast Rep’s production of “Billy Elliot” has been unique, Liam said, despite his earlier starring roles in the production in Williamstown, N.J. and at Arlington, Virginia’s award-winning Signature Theater. Bertone, he said, has encouraged the cast to experiment with the characters and helped develop unique back stories to enrich their portrayal.
The story addresses themes including homophobia and “toxic masculinity” that Bertone said remain relevant today, and well as the power of community to provide mutual support.
Said Liam, “That sense of individuality, but still of community, is really what the audience should take from it, and learn that life lesson.”
Liam described the role as physically challenging; he is on stage most of the show, and the dance styles shift from among tap, ballet and jazz. “Pretty much I never leave the stage,” he said. “I practice my songs on the treadmill, because a lot of times I’ll be singing them while I’m actively dancing.”
His biggest reward in “Billy Elliot” is connecting with and inspiring others. “My favorite part of the role is being able to share the story with the other young male dancers in the audience. Even though it’s something that people might not accept, if you want to do it, go for it.”
Kim Redford said she can see that connection as she observes audience reactions: “They become vested in the show.”
Billy Elliot’s story is well-suited for the Seacoast Rep’s start to the year, said the theater’s interim artistic director, Jamie Bradley. “The central theme of the show is love and tolerance and acceptance,” Bradley said. “Whether it’s miners standing up for themselves, or a family struggling to find its identity, learning to love each other through our differences is a great first message to put out, and it’s how we as a theater want to go forward.”
“Billy Elliot: The Musical” runs Feb. 8 to March 9. Showtimes are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. There is also a special “Friends of the Rep” fundraising production on Wednesday, Feb. 20 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available through the Seacoast Rep box office at 603-433-4472, or online at www.seacoastrep.org/tickets. For student discounts, call the box office.
“Billy Elliot” is sponsored by Nick Gray Builders and Martingale Wharf. The Seacoast Repertory Theatre’s 2019 season is sponsored in part by Bondgarden Farms, Martingale Wharf, MacEdge, the Sheraton Portsmouth Harborside Hotel and Key Heating and Air Conditioning.