Jumping for joy: Lehigh Valley premiere of Elton John musical, ‘Billy Elliot,’ reopens restored 19th St. Theatre
When William Sanders looked around to select the play for the reopening of Civic Theatre of Allentown’s $5.5-million renovation and restoration of its historic Nineteenth Street Theatre, he needed to look no further than his favorite musical.
“Billy Elliot” premiered in London’s West End in 2005 and was nominated for nine Laurence Olivier Awards, receiving four, including best new musical.
Sanders saw “Billy Elliot” six times on Broadway. The musical, which opened in 2008 and continued into 2012, was nominated for a then record-tying 15 Tonys, receiving 10, including best musical.
From London’s West End to Allentown’s West End Theater District, “Billy Elliot” is the opening act for “The Next Act: Setting the Stage for the Future” capital campaign to refurbish the theater.
The Lehigh Valley debut of “Billy Elliot,” with music by Elton John, got an extra, unplanned boost, when Sir Elton’s “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” world tour kicked off Sept. 8 at PPL Center, Allentown.
Once he decided on the show, Sanders needed to find his Billy: a boy who’s a triple-threat, i.e., singer-dancer-actor.
Not only a dancer, but a ballet dancer.
Then came the phone call. Sanders had found his Billy: Parker James Fullmore.
Fullmore, a California resident, found out that Civic was opening its 2018-19 season with “Billy Elliot,” Oct. 12-28, on the main stage of Nineteenth Street Theatre.
“He [Fullmore] had played the part twice before,” says Sanders, celebrating his 25th year as Civic Theatre Artistic Director.
Fullmore relocated with his mother, Ann Marie Fullmore, and his sister, Payton Ashley Fullmore, to a rented house in the Lehigh Valley. He and his sister, who’s one of the Ballet Girls in the show, have been in rehearsal with the rest of the “Billy Elliot” cast since August.
The 19th Street Theatre restoration work resulted in a rehearsal diaspora: Muhlenberg Elementary School, Parkland High School, Cedar Crest College and the Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT) Kuhnsville studio.
The RDT location is no coincidence. Sanders, who is directing “Billy Elliot,” brought in Jennifer Haltzman Tracy as choreographer for the musical’s ballet sequences. Haltzman Tracy is working with show choreographers Deena Linn and Sarah Parker.
“I’ve always admired Jen and RDT,” says Sanders.
“This is a first in terms of a production-collaborating,” says Haltzman Tracy. “We’ve done educational outreach programs with them [Civic], like our City Arts program.
“I did more with the Ballet Girls, and also with Billy [Fullmore], who does so much of the ballet work,” Haltzman Tracy says.
“I’m so excited. My mother [Dolly Haltzman] did a lot of musical theater for Dieruff High School and other high schools and the JCC. This is my first musical theater production,” says Haltzman Tracy, a veteran RDT annual “Nutcracker” ballet choreographer.
The Nineteenth Street Theatre project reduced by one week main-stage rehearsal time for “Billy Elliot.” Cast and crew took hold of the stage Sept. 30.
Sanders credits Will Morris, Civic Theatre Associate Director-Production Manager, who is Lighting Designer and Costume Designer for “Billy Elliot,” with ensuring the facility was ready for the nearly 30-member cast and nine-piece orchestra. Frank Anonia is Music Director for “Billy Elliot.”
Sanders also credits Maria DeFebo-Edwards, Civic Theatre Board of Directors President; Shirley Kline, Civic Theatre Managing Director; Sharon Glassman, capital campaign cochair; Dr. Barry Glassman, capital campaign cochair, and Greg Butz, President and CEO, Alvin H. Butz, inc., and capital campaign co-hair, in helping to make the renovation project go as smoothly as possible.
Civic ankled the Nineteenth Street Theatre with its annual production of “A Christmas Carol” in December 2017. Appropriately enough, “The Darklest Hour” concluded film programming in the main theater. Art, indie and foreign films continued in Theatre514.
Film screenings ressume in Nineteenth Street Theatre with the 25th anniversary of Disney’s “Hocus Pocus,” Oct. 30, and the world premiere of Lehigh Valley director Zeke Zelker’s “Billboard,” Nov. 1.
Civic staged its 2018 main-stage shows at Cedar Crest College.
Civic Theater of Allentown, founded in 1927, moved to the Nineteenth Street Theatre, a 1928 art deco movie palace, in 1957.
On a recent day, when 19th Street between Liberty and Allen streets was closed to traffic, Sanders marvels, “There were two cranes here, with two tons of air-conditioning units dangling in mid-air.”
Hard-hat construction notwithstanding, the show must go on.
“It’s probably the bigest musical we’ve ever done,” Sanders says. “The staging is really intricate.
“I didn’t even think we could do it,” says Sanders, adding, “When I was thinking about the season, I decided we were going to jump off the cliff.”
Sanders admitted that had he not found his Billy Elliot, he might have not done the show.
“And then Parker arrived,” Sanders recalls.
“Billy Elliot,” with music by Elton John and book and lyrics by Lee Hall, is based on a 2000 film, for which Hall also wrote the screenplay. Billy Elliot is a British youth who eschews boxing for ballet. The backdrop is a 1984-85 miners’ strike in England. Hall’s screenplay was inspired by a 1935 novel by A.J. Cronin.
The musical’s opening song, “The Stars Look Down,” is an homage to the strike. The show’s song, “Electricity,” is sung by Billy Elliot.
There’s a “Red Carpet” opening night reception at 6 p.m., with curtain at 7 p.m. Oct. 12, for “Billy Elliot.”
The Civic Theatre season includes: “A Christmas Carol,” Nov. 30-Dec. 15; ‘The SantaLand Diaries,” Dec. 7-16 (Theatre514); “Noises Off,” Feb. 8-24; “Buyer & Cellar,” March 15-24 (Theatre514); “The Lion King, Jr.,” April 4-7; “Fun Home,” May 3-19, and “Constellations,” June 21-30 (Theatre514).
Tickets: Civic Theater box office, 527 N. 19th St., Allentown; civictheatre.com; 610-432-8943