The cast of “Billy Elliot”
Photo by Michael Brosilow
That this musical lacks memorable, anthemic songs (candidates include the choral numbers “Once We Were Kings” and “Solidarity” as well as the spoof-inviting “Born to Boogie”) almost doesn’t matter.
“Billy” is a show about the irrepressible urge to move — to find one’s mojo in rhythmic leaps and tap dance. Dance is the personal expression of the motherless 11-year-old title character who lives with his forgetful Grandma (Patti Perkins), older brother Tony (Jeff Kready) and hard-bitten coal miner dad (Rich Hebert)…
Even though ballet is little understood and regarded with suspicion by the rugged men around Billy, it is a path for the lad, under the guidance of his teacher, to escape a dead-end future in a declining town.
This clash between old and new values, between batons and tutus, is staged with mechanical fanfare by Stephen Daldry, who delights a little too much in it. The show is a bit long, and at Friday’s opening, the first act seemed rough around the edges.
Still, it is easy to see why “Billy,” ballyhooed in Britain, where it originated, and New York, where it won 10 Tony Awards, has been such a juggernaut. It has a touching story that could be set in America’s Rust Belt. And the action is centered on youngsters on whom we can project our own dreams.
Time and again in this show, a scene or song or effect is good enough–and then the show gives us a little more.
Billy Elliot, with music by Elton John and book/lyrics by Lee Hall, is by far the most hotly anticipated touring Broadway musical to come to Minnesota this year. The adaptation of the 2000 film won ten Tony Awards in 2009, including Best Musical. The story was a natural for adaptation to the stage, and seeing the stage production Friday night I was reminded how strong the plot is. Billy (on Friday night, Michael Dameski) is the young son of an widowed English coal miner (Rich Hebert) in 1984, when the miners were on an unsuccessful yearlong strike to prevent Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government from putting an end to the state-run coal industry. The burnt-out local dance teacher (Faith Prince) discovers that Billy has a talent for dance, and Billy’s family and community are challenged to find both the tolerance and the money to allow Billy to audition for the Royal Ballet School.
The premise could be a recipe for a trainload of saccharin sentiment, but the film and the musical–both directed by Stephen Daldry–succeed with strong characterizations, gentle wit, and a tough, surprisingly substantive perspective on the labor conflict. We’re allowed to see the real existential desperation of these men, who are fighting to save a way of life that’s being swept away by forces far larger than them, larger even than Margaret Thatcher and her entire government. Little Billy is full of promise and pride, and a less intelligent take on this material would conflate his achievements with those of the community; here, though, Billy’s individual success is poignantly tied to the failure of the common good. Should Billy’s dad break the picket line and go to work as a scab so his son can have a shot at success? There are not a lot of big-budget Broadway musicals that engage such thorny ethical questions.
There’s plenty in “Billy Elliot the Musical” that may confound audiences, from the contentious politics of the Thatcher era to the thick northern England accents to the intricacies of mid-’80s British class struggle. And sensitive audience members should know the language gets rough and enough characters puff actual cigarettes on stage that some folks will leave with smoke in their eyes.
Yet the musical, which just opened at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis, ultimately succeeds for the same reasons as the 2000 film that inspired it. It’s a rousing, uplifting and cynicism-melting tale of discovering and nurturing raw talent in the midst of dire times — finding a diamond in a coal mine, if you will…
The show starts slow and feels somewhat clunky as it bounces between overly broad humor and confusing exposition. And while Billy’s mom is dead, the character of his grandmother feels extraneous and only slows things down. Four songs in, though, things really pick up with the full-cast number “Solidarity,” the first of several Elton John-penned numbers to pack a heady punch. From there, tightly choreographed group numbers and some spectacular dancing from the lead make it a breeze to forget the early weaknesses of the script and to simply get wrapped up in the spirited spectacle of it all.