Hall’s journey from Billy to War Horse to Pitmen

Pitmen feature
Cast members of TheatreWorks’ The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall include, from left, Jackson Davis, Paul Whitworth, James Carpenter, and Nicholas Pelczar. Photo by Mark Kitaoka

The Bay Area has been pretty good to Lee Hall of late. Last year, his musical adaptation (with music by Sir Elton John) of his movie Billy Elliot received rapturous notices (though closed a month early) at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. It’s a show that had already won the British scribe a 2009 Tony Award for best book of a musical.

Then his movie adaptation of the stage hit War Horse, co-written by Richard Curtis and directed by Steven Spielberg, opened in theaters around the world. And next summer, the play version (which Hall did not write, though he was asked early on) gallops into the SHN season.

Hall’s Broadway follow-up to Billy was a play called The Pitmen Painters, another exploration of arts influence on the population of Northern England. Now that play makes its West Coast debut courtesy of TheatreWorks in Mountain View.

I spoke with Hall about his many and varied projects for an interview in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Read the interview here.


Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters continues through Feb. 12 in a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$69. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Faith renewed: A Tony winner goes on tour

Faith - Billy Elliot (crop)
Tony Award-winner Faith Prince, center (atop the feathers), is Mrs. Wilkinson in the second national tour of Billy Elliot now at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Hair piled on her head, cigarette dangling out of her mouth and a slight stoop to her posture, Faith Prince can get a laugh just walking across the stage as Mrs. Wilkinson, the dissatisfied dance teacher in Billy Elliot the Musical. And the laugh’s even bigger if she’s rocking her shiny gold, fuzzy-trimmed ’80s coat.

On the road for nearly a year now, Prince is experiencing — if you can believe this — her first-ever national tour. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that since she made her Broadway debut as Gypsy stripper Tessie Tura in Jerome Robbin’s Broadway in 1989, Prince has worked steadily and on her own terms. She won a Tony in 1992 for her unforgettable turn as Miss Adelaide in the benchmark revival of Guys and Dolls, and she was nominated again for her role as the mother of the bride in 2008’s A Catered Affair.

In between Broadway gigs, Prince has worked fairly extensively in TV (“Spin City,” “Huff”) and raised a family. A few years ago, she and her husband, trumpeter Larry Lunetta, and their son, Henry, moved to Sacramento, which is where they met when they were working at California Musical Theatre’s Music Circus.

When deciding whether or not to hit the road with Billy Elliot, Prince considered the nice, long run in San Francisco at the Orpheum Theatre (part of the SHN season) and how easy it would be to drive home and be with her family on her days off.

“I was being considered for Broadway when Billy Elliot came over from London, but that didn’t work out,” Prince says. “Later on they talked to me about Chicago, but I was in Sacramento for my son’s first year of high school, and we had just moved my mother to Sacramento, so I said, ‘If you come to the West Coast, call me.'”

They called. And in addition to the West Coast, there were other cities in the deal.

“It’s been a great job,” Prince continues. “I really love the kids. I was a camp counselor growing up. With five young actors sharing the role of Billy, it’s like having five children of my own. You grow to love each of them for their gifts and really hone in on what they’re about and what they give the role. Some of them have a wicked sense of humor. Some are incredibly wise. For me, having five different leading men is golden. It keeps me fresh. I try to keep them in the present, and I never say the same line the same way twice.”

Faith Prince headshotPrince, who will turn 54 in less than a month, is in her dressing room at the Orpheum. She’s not between shows. She’s between scenes in Act 2, when her character, Mrs. Wilkinson, only appears a couple of times. During the interview she has to excuse herself to go do a scene, but she comes back and picks up right where she left off, leaving the crankiness and the Northern England accent on stage.

Playing Mrs. Wilkinson comes rather naturally to Prince, she says, because there are English/Scottish/Irish women like her in the Prince family DNA.

“They substitute emotion for humor. There’s an irony inherent in them,” she explains. “My family was like that growing up. She’s a little colder than I would probably be, but I found that exciting and something to really tackle. It’s easier to play a colder person when you have a warm center. You get the complexity of both.”

Prince has to pretend she can teach dance to little girls (and one boy), which she does effectively even though she calls herself a “dance illusionist” because she can dance just enough to create the illusion that she’s moving the way she’s supposed to be moving. Being part of such a big machine — and Billy Elliot really is a massive, multiple-Tony Award-winning musical machine — has been an interesting experience for Prince, whose character is somewhat on the periphery.

“I’m used to being right in the center of everything, but I’ve enjoyed this and really learned from it,” she says. “I took what they [the Billy Elliot creative team] gave me and made it mine. That’s been a dual process for them and me. That’s who I am, and they knew that when they hired me. We found our middle ground, which has been great. They know how enthusiastic I am. I don’t miss a show. I’m that old Broadway war horse.”

Being on the tour has been a nice change of pace from the usual “who knows what’s coming next” aspect of show business life. Prince knows exactly which town is coming next and for how long. Sometimes the tour stops are long ones (like San Francisco) and otehr times just a couple of weeks.

But once the tour concludes, Prince will focus on her family and start thinking about dream projects.

“I’d love to do a series,” she says. “I think there’s still a great role for me in a series. And honestly, I’m at the age I’ve waited for all my life. I’ve always been an older soul. I could see myself doing a Hello, Dolly! or a Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd.”

She also has a second recording waiting in the wings, a follow up to 2000’s A Leap of Faith. It’s another live recording with stories and songs. She’s also writing a book for kids to be a supportive voice for young performers thinking about a life in show business.

Prince seems to be that rarity in show business: a funny, sensible, well-adjusted star. She says there’s a reason for that.

“I have a lot of things in my life I love that have nothing to do with the business,” she says. “Early on I knew I’d have to have steady things in my life. I love flowers, cooking, entertaining, shopping, putting things together, sewing, making things happen, creating things. I love show business, but if you depend on it to make you happy, it will always let you down. You have to have other things in your life that stabilize you no matter what. When good things come, that’s great. When they don’t come right away, they’ll get here eventually. That kind of mentality keeps you sane. And happy.”

[bonus video]
Here’s Faith Prince delivering a bang-up version of her signature song, “Adelaide’s Lament,” from Guys and Dolls.

Billy Elliot the Musical continues through Sept. 17 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets start at $35. Call 888-746-1799 or visit http://shnsf.com/shows/billyelliot for information.

Oi! Dancing boy! The barnstorming brilliance of Billy Elliot

Billy Elliot 1
Half Moon Bay native J.P. Viernes played the title role in Billy Elliot the Musical for the opening-night performance at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre, where the show runs through Sept. 17. Photo by Joan Marcus. Below: Faith Prince (amid the gaggle of girls) is Mrs. Wilkinson, dance teacher to Billy, played by Daniel Russell, one of five boys sharing the role. Photo by Kyle Froman

When Billy Elliot the Musical caused a sensation in London in 2005 and then swept the 2009 Tonys with 10 awards, you could be excused for wondering what all the fuss was about. Wasn’t this yet another in a seemingly endless and mostly unnecessary line of movie-into-musical transformations?

The answer in the case of Billy is a definite no. There has never been a musical quite like this before that blends politics and pathos, glitz and grim reality, corny schmaltz and genuine emotion. This is sophisticated stuff: an old-fashioned and new-fangled musical all jumbled up in one fascinating, enormously entertaining package. It’s a sad story with joyous highs and inspiring performances.

All that said, the musical is still not as good as the 2000 movie it’s based on (which is an absolute gem), but given that the movie’s creative team also worked on the musical indicates a pleasingly high level of integrity in the musical expansion of this story.

The touring version of Billy Elliot, the final show of the SHN season, opened Tuesday at the Orpheum Theatre for a three-month run, and it’s “cush,” to use the characters’ Northern England slang.

Everybody wrestles with that tricky Northern England accent (not everybody wins), but we get the picture. This small coal-mining town, Easington, is in the throes of the yearlong coal miners’ strike of 1984/85. Times are rough, and being a boy who likes ballet in this tense, hyper-masculine land makes life challenging for 11-year-old Billy.

In an effort to be a creative endeavor apart from the film, the musical blends much more of the politics into the story. Director Stephen Daldry and choreographer Peter Darling (both reprising similar duties from the movie) make bold choices in staging the sort of fairy tale coming-of-age story of Billy’s triumph through ballet with the harsh reality of the strike.

The number “Solidarity” gives us our first taste of what Daldry and Darling have up their theatrical sleeves as striking miners tussle with riot police, while little girls in tutus dance among them as they take their ballet class. It’s a clash of worlds, and it makes for powerful theater.

Daldry also allows several songs to veer from reality into razzle-dazzle musical moments. When dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (the ever-wonderful Faith Prince evoking the equally wonderful Julie Walters from the movie) tries to inspire her mini-corps de ballet by encouraging them to “Shine,” the mundane rec hall gives way to a sparkly curtain and some trusty Broadway gusto.

Billy Elliot 2

Even better is when Billy (played on opening night by Half Moon Bay native J.P. Viernes, who rotates in the role with four other actors) and his best friend Michael (Griffin Birney on opening night) dress up in women’s clothes for the number “Expressing Yourself.” What starts as a lark in a bedroom becomes a full-blown production number complete with ludicrous (in the best sense) costumes of giant dresses and trousers bouncing around the stage with the boys.

The young actors who play Billy (in addition to Viernes they are Ethan Fuller, Kylend Hetherington, Lex Ishimoto and Daniel Russell) have a performance marathon to contend with in this show. In addition to the singing, the acting and the accent, they have some huge dance numbers, which really are the highlights of the show. The Act 1 closer, “Angry Dance,” expresses Billy’s rage at being told boys don’t do ballet, and the Act 2 high point is Billy’s aerial pas de deux with his older self (Maximilien A. Baud).

Young Viernes – he’s 15 – is an extraordinary dancer and a solid actor. It also doesn’t hurt that he rates pretty high on the Billy adorability scale.

The score, with music by Elton John and lyrics by Lee Hall (who also wrote the scripts for the musical and the movie), serves the story well. These aren’t songs I love hearing apart from the show, but while the story is unfolding, they’re just right. This time out, the songs that stood out for me were the melancholy “We’d Go Dancing” sung by Billy’s slightly dotty grandmother (Patti Perkins), the scathing “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher” and the heartbreaking “folk song” (sounds old but is actually new) sung by Billy’s grieving father (Rich Hebert).

There’s no escaping the fact that Billy Elliot is a deeply sad show. Sure, there’s a happy ending for Billy, but he’s the only one with the chance of a future outside of a fast-fading coal-mining town. The final images of the show are actually quite heartbreaking.

That’s probably why the creative team went to such lengths to stage the peppiest curtain call this side of the “mega mix” that concludes later productions of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The entire cast, led by Billy of course, goes through a marvelous series of dances, all performed with comic verve and high spirits. There’s even confetti and streamers, so the audience goes out on a high, perhaps forgetting the grim story that has just been told.

PARENTS PLEASE NOTE: Though there are a lot of kids in Billy Elliot the Musical, the language is rough and the volume high. It’s recommended for children 8 and older.

[bonus video]
Meet the five Billys in the touring production of Billy Elliot the Musical

Billy Elliot the Musical continues through Sept. 17 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets start at $35. Call 888-746-1799 or visit http://shnsf.com/shows/billyelliot for information.