Jan. 9 2013 12:00 AM

Actress draws on a lifetime of theater for role in 'Billy Elliot'


For eight years, “Billy Elliot the Musical” has been racking up awards and knocking audiences out on both sides of the Atlantic. Whether it’s Elton John’s rousing music or the story’s believe-in-yourself-no-matter-what-others-say sensibilities, the show seems to be that rare adaptation that’s every bit as good as its source material.  Local audiences will find out for themselves on Tuesday when the Tony Award-winner for Best Musical pirouettes across the Wharton Center’s stage. 

Based on the Academy Award-nominated 2000 movie, “Billy Elliot” tells the story of the titular 11-year old British lad who discovers a talent for ballet — much to the chagrin of his coalminer father. The film didn’t sink into American pop culture when it landed here in the States, but it developed a cult following over the years that led to its being converted to stage. 

Janet Dickinson plays Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy’s ballet instructor, who encourages his special gift. Dickinson recently discussed her character’s strengths, weaknesses and backstory by phone from the road. 

“Oh, Mrs. Wilkinson, she’s a great broad,” Dickinson said. “She tried to make it as an entertainer in London, but she had her dreams dashed and now she’s back in a small mining town. Of course, it’s mundane for her, but she finds this diamond in the rough that sparks something in her, and she sees (Billy’s) potential to follow his dream that she didn’t do.”  

Wilkinson joined the “Billy Elliot” cast in June and worked with members who had toured with versions of the show in Australia and London. Before this show, she was also part of another film-to-stage-musical adaptation, “9 to 5.” It’s all been part of one long, unintentional acting career. 

A Minnesota native, Dickinson grew up in a musical family, where she took dance “like a lot of girls.” But unlike all those other girls who hang up their ballet slippers once they get bored, Dickinson’s passion intensified, and after high school she decided to pursue music as a career. 

“But then I got involved in theater and started making money at it,” she says.  “I moved to New York and always thought of myself as more as a dancer, but I quickly shifted to musicals and straight plays.” 

Which isn’t all that dissimilar from her character, right? 

“Yes, it’s a fine line between myself and my character,” she said with a laugh. “There’s a lot of me in her, and vice versa. The more you connect (a character) to yourself, the more you can create a world that you can relate to so you can just step into it every night, like putting on a cloak. 

“But I’ve met these women. I’ve worked with them. They pursued their dreams and for one reason or another have to shift out of it. A lot of women and men decide they want to have something more stable, so they quit. But then some of them, like Mrs. Wilkinson, open up dance studios — thank God — to help the next generation of dancers.”

Dickinson said that “Billy Elliot” is actually rolling through East Lansing at a particularly poignant time, which will really enhance its appeal with local audiences. 

“The union aspect is really going to resonate with Michigan people, specifically,” she says. “It’s set during the time when Margaret Thatcher broke the back of the coal mining union (during the ’84-‘85 U.K. miners strike) and destroyed these chains of little towns. At this point, nearly every American has been affected somehow by the economy. This show takes a peek inside the lives of some people who were dealing with a very similar kind of adversity, and demonstrates how there is always hope.” 

So here we have a woman who has successfully pursued her dreams of being a professional actor/dancer playing a woman who has failed at her dreams of dancing. It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for this fictional character Dickinson dons every night. 

“Well, she’s imperfect, as are all the characters — as are we all,” Dickinson says. “This isn’t ‘Hello, Dolly’ — this is about a real story based on actual events. It’s just that it’s a real story that also has singing and dancing and comedy and a heart.” 

“Billy Elliot the Musical”
Wharton Center
Jan. 15-20
7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday- Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. & 6:30 p.m. Sunday