Review: Amazing 10-year-old leads in SDMT’s magnificent ‘Billy Elliot’

As a film critic of more than 25 years I can still say the 2000 movie of “Billy Elliot” remains on my top 25. It was nominated for three Oscars, 158 other awards received and 61 nominations. I was extremely excited to learn San Diego Musical Theater was staging “Billy Elliot the Musical.” The San Diego Musical Theater goes beyond producing incredible entertainment and this show not only held up to that anticipation of enjoyment but went far beyond expectation.

The story takes place in England at a time where a yearlong coal miners’ strike has families distressed and irritated. This affects the men, the women and their children. One little boy named Billy Elliot (Charlie Garton) has found what he wants to do. However, his dad (Doug Tompos) wants him to learn how to be tough; just like the coal miners he’s around all day. So he wants Billy to take boxing lessons.

Billy tries but doesn’t find hitting people fun. In fact, one day after boxing he noticed girls doing ballet in the room. He starts mimicking their moves and gets better at it every day. The entire cast of SDMT’s production of “Billy Elliot the Musical” is outstanding, and 10-year-old Charlie Garton as Billy Elliot is breathtaking. In almost every scene he’s dancing, ballet, tap, hip-hop and singing. He steals this show, not only with his singing and dancing talents but dealing with the drama of his dad not wanting him to be a dancer, but tough like him.

Learning more about Rancho Santa Fe residents Charlie and his mother in an interview explained a lot about this young, exceptionally talented boy. Charlie not only learned his entire dialogue, but said all his lines with an English accent.

“From the time he could walk he was always dancing around , copying me and putting on little shows,” said Charlie’s mother, Francine Garton, who co-owns the Pacific Arts Dance Center in Carmel Valley. “He didn’t start taking training at my dance studio until he was 6 or 7. He started with tap, then hip-hop, and last year added ballet. Charlie couldn’t wait to audition for the role of Billy Elliot.”

“We had to memorize two scenes, sing a song, and perform a ballet audition and a tap audition. I didn’t have singing lessons until I had to audition,” Charlie said.

“It’s been such a wonderful and memorable experience,” said Francine. “I’m from Liverpool and my husband is from Manchester, so we have completely different accents. Charlie is one of four children. Two of them, Billy and Bobbie, were born in England, and Frankie and Charlie were born in San Diego so they were born here but have English accents.” Francine said the accent Charlie had to learn for Billy Elliot is a Geordie accent from Newcastle (where the musical and movie is set) which is completely different. Francine added that he practiced the entire script (about 150 pages) himself and did not ask for help from her.

Charlie said he received a lot of help from Neil Dale, the director, and from the dialect coach, Vanessa Dinning. Charlie also explained how he had the stamina for singing, dancing and delivering his dialogue perfectly. “Every time I go backstage there’s a water bottle for me on the dresser and in the bathroom,” he said. “Sometimes after the curtain closes I just lie down on the floor.”

The show got a rousing applause and even Charlie’s parents and family members shed some tears.

“He’s been brought up to be humble and grounded and he really worked hard for this show,” Francine said. “I’ve been teaching for over 20 years, performed on stages around the world and produced recitals with 800 children on stage, but I’m astonished and in awe when I watch my son’s performance as there’s so much pressure on him and he has just been amazing.”

Charlie is being homeschooled. As of now his favorite subject is math. He often says he will be an engineer but right now he is just loving performing.

Charlie’s next role will be Boo-Who in the Old Globe’s “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”

When asked if he was excited about that, he gave a shout-out rousing “Yes!”

IF YOU GO: “Billy Elliot the Musical” Now through Oct. 8, Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway, San Diego. Tickets $22-$72 (discounts available) or in person at SDMT’s Administrative Office located at 4650 Mercury St., San Diego, 92111. 858-560-5740.