November 1, 2018 at 10:54 am EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Local theater director initially wary of ‘Billy Elliot’ at Signature
Billy Elliot, gay news, Washington Blade

Matthew Gardiner in rehearsal for ‘Billy Elliot’ at Signature Theatre. (Photo by Christopher Mueller)

‘Billy Elliot the Musical’
Through Jan. 6
Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Ave.
Arlington, Va.

Staging “Billy Elliot the Musical” has been both extremely challenging and a delight for Signature Theatre’s talented Matthew Gardiner. The Helen Hayes Award-winning out director and choreographer had three weeks to rehearse the story of the 11-year-old boy whose life is forever changed by ballet. Set against the 1980s miner’s strike in hardscrabble North Eastern England, Billy’s journey inspires audiences to be themselves and reach for their dreams. 

“The show means a lot to me,” says Gardiner, 34, who like Billy was the only boy in an all-girls’ ballet class from age 8 to about 16. “But at first it was a 24/7, all-consuming beast.” 

Gardiner almost didn’t do “Billy Elliot.” For some time, Signature’s Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer wanted to mount the Tony Award-winning musical scored by Elton John and wanted Gardiner to direct. But Gardiner wasn’t excited about the movie made into a musical.

“I’d seen the film and knew it was very special, but I’d never seen the musical,” Gardiner says. “Something about the Broadway marketing of miners in tutus turned me off. It seemed a little cloying.”

Finally, Gardiner, who lives in Woodley Park, sat down and read the libretto and listened to the score in his office at Signature in Arlington.

“I lost it,” he says. “This kid is a dancer who finds his voice and that was me. I wasn’t prepared for the moving story of loss and community. It’s way more than a musical about a kid who wants to dance.”

And though he had both directed and choreographed “Cabaret” and “La Cage Aux Folles” at Signature, he says “Billy Elliot” proved more challenging.

“It calls to fulfill moments in thrilling ways that have great impact. And the part of young Billy (double cast with Owen Tabaka and Liam Redford) is complicated. He has to sing, act, do ballet, tap, tumble and fly. It’s endless.”

But prior to rehearsals, he and associate choreographer Kelly Crandall d’Amboise laid out a strategy, and with some long and arduous days, everything came together. Gardiner got into dance by watching.

“I was obsessed with ‘Wizard of Oz,’ and Judy Garland in particular. The joke is that my coming out story is that as a 6 year old, I owned every Judy Garland album. I spent a lot of time in the basement singing her stuff and that led to an obsession with ‘Easter Parade’ and other old musicals.”

While dance wasn’t Gardiner’s sports-minded mother’s strong suit, she assiduously fostered her young son’s interest while his father ferried him to classes at Washington Ballet and performances of the company’s “The Nutcracker” at Warner Theatre. During his teen years, Gardiner took summer classes with famed ballerina Suzanne Farrell at the Kennedy Center.

But the experience wasn’t entirely strife free. Gardiner recalls, “being picked on for having to leave school early to go to ballet class or coming back from a performance of ‘The Nutcracker’ and not having fully removed all the makeup. It was hard but that ballet room is the place where I felt most myself.” At one point, bullying prompted Gardiner to change from a private Lutheran school in suburban Maryland to a nearby arts magnet elementary school.

“Until I was about 16, I fully intended to be a career ballet dancer and I was told that I had the ability. And then — much to my parents’ temporary anger — I didn’t want to do it anymore. I didn’t feel autonomous or creative enough in that process. Of course, there are phenomenal ballet dancers whose artistry is impeccable, but for me I felt ballet was too restrictive at a certain moment in my life.

Around the same time, Gardiner saw “Fosse” on Broadway and became fascinated with Broadway choreographers. He went on to study directing at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh where he was also able to learn about choreography. 

“Doing ballet as a kid was not a waste of time. It made me disciplined, driven, a better dancer and better storyteller. In part it has made me a better director. Initially, the reason I wanted to direct was to paint pictures and tell stories with bodies on stage.”

“Billy Elliot” is Gardiner’s first experience with a production featuring so many child actors (10 parts double cast). “It works a different muscle. In some ways you become an acting coach,” he says. “When I staged the scene where another boy kisses Billy, they didn’t see what the big deal was. My experience is not their experience. They live in urban settings where a lot of things are more accepted. I’m floored by them. And their desire to do this thing. It’s been incredibly inspiring.” 

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