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A CurtainUp Review
Billy Elliot the Musical
By Elyse Sommer
I was engaged enough to vicariously thrill to Billy's gradually feeling something move inside him when he danced. I felt I was in Mrs. Wilkinson's class learning to pirouette and felt like leaping out of my seat as Billy leaped to ever more thrilling heights. His painful yearning for his dead mother brought tears to my eyes.
The motherless boy for whom ballet becomes a release from the sadness and drabness of his life in a dinosaur coal mining town is, of course, the cynosure of this extraordinarily touching and beautiful musical. But the entire enterprise sparkles and crackles with electricity, and brings an emotionally, aurally and visually engaging musical to Broadway, where it deserves to have a long life, as it's already having in London. Which brings us to the question of how the show has fared in its move across the pond, with only the wonderful Haydn Quinn on board as Mrs. Wilkinson, the teacher who recognizes and nurtures Billy's talent. The answer: very well indeed!
Trent Kowalik, the Billy I saw last night, is an amazing triple threat. In addition to the spectacular dancing talent that put him in the running for the part, he's also a savvy young actor who's learned to convey Billy's yearnings with his body movements, and to sing Elton John's songs with clarity and feeling. From what I've heard from other critics and readers who saw David Alvarez or Kent Kulish, who alternate with Kowalik, each brings something special to the role, and each is outstanding. Given how the almost three hours flew by, I'd go back any time to see the other Billys, not to make comparisons, but to once again experience "the sparks inside of me" that seeing the show set off.
In the role-sharing part of Michael, Billy's friend whose penchant for dressing up in his mum and sister's dresses makes him an oddball in a place dominated by macho males, I saw Frank Dolce giving a funny and endearing performance. Given the large cast, it's impossible to comment on everyone, but Gregory Jbara deserves a Tony for best supporting player in a musical as Billy's Dad who makes as big a journey as his son.
The rest of Billy's family, Santino Fontana as his older brother, and Carole Shelley as his grandmother also make strong impressions, with Shelley especially touching when she sings "We'd Go Dancing" which, as Lizzie Loveridge pointed out in her review exemplifies Lee Hall's witty mix of nostalgia and realism. (It's fun to see Daniel Oreskes, usually in Shakespear dramas, as Big Davey).
The London review provides the plot details as well as the high points of the eye-popping scenery, costumes and choreography: The informative opening video footage. . . the stirring images and anthems depicting the coal miners' solidarity. . . the scene where Billy stumbles into Mrs Wilkinson's ballet class. . . the incredibly inventive tap dance featuring Billy and Michael and a dance ensemble as headless dancing dresses on hangers . . the enormous Thatcher puppets in the second act's Christmas pantomine . . . the stunning Swan Lake duet by Billy and his older self (a magnificent Stephen Hanna). . .and Billy's electrifying "Electricity." I've therefore re-posted Lizzie's review which you can read either by scrolling down past the song list or clicking here for the London Review).
This is an expensive show and a cast with so many children, many of whom will outgrow their dancing shoes and require re-training replacements. That and concerns about a story set in the coal fields of Northern England and about a community and industry devastated by the Thatcher government, not resonating with American audiences accounts for the three year delay in bringing it here. As it turns out, the state of our current economy has made it all too easy to identify with this story. All sorts of American towns have become ghost towns and workers in blue and white color areas have been made obsolete by outsourcing. And Billy's achieving his dream of becoming a dancer makes for a bittersweet happy ending no matter where the audience lives.
Oh, and don't rush out of your seat. There's a priceless encore!
Stephen Daldry's delightful film Billy Elliot has made the transition to West End musical whilst remaining true to its roots: the struggle in the 1980s when Britain's coal miners went on strike to keep their jobs and lost to the forces of Margaret Thatcher's hard line Tory government. Of course, unlike many other film to musical adaptations, this one has only been a few years from award winning film to first night in the theatre. It has undoubtedly helped in recreating the original to have retained the same director, Stephen Daldry, the same writer, Lee Hall, and the same choreographer, Peter Darling. The only element that has changed radically is the music. Elton John has composed the music, which in the original film was mostly by Mark Bolam's T Rex with other tracks from The Clash and The Style Council. Billy Elliot the musical is refreshing, gritty, poignant, outlandish, funny, original and I would guess set to grace the London stage for some time.
The story is a simple one but it engenders a complexity of emotional response. Set in county Durham, against the backdrop of the strike which lasted twelve months, motherless eleven year old Billy (Liam Mower, George Maguire, James Lomas) stumbles into a girls' ballet class run by Mrs Wilkinson (Haydn Gwynn). Without his family knowing, Billy continues to come to the dance class and Mrs Wilkinson, recognising a talent, wants him to audition for the Royal Ballet School in London. Billy befriends oddball Michael (Ryan Longbottom) who likes dressing up in his mother's clothes. Meanwhile Billy's father (Tim Healy) and brother (Joe Caffrey) are too pre-occupied with the daily battle with policemen in riot gear protecting "scab" workers or strike breakers who are seen only to be prolonging the strike. On one side of the picket line are well-paid police and "scab" miners, on the other, hungry, striking miners with a very few pounds in strike pay and donations. The North of England is not known for its liberal attitudes towards dance and homosexuality. Up there, the men are beer swilling, unemancipated "real men". The journey made in Billy Elliot is that of the father coming to terms with his son's desire to be a dancer and the realisation that, without the backing of governments, the traditional employment alternative, coal mining, is a dying profession.
The opening is wonderful, video footage shows the twentieth century news footage history of the mines and "The Stars Look Down" is a stirring avowal of brotherhood and community amongst coal miners. The first magnificently choreographed number is the upbeat "Shine" as Mrs Wilkinson's ballet class are put through their (deliberately clumsy) paces in ballet-tap and end up in an exuberant fan dance. Billy's grandmother (Ann Emery) evokes her youth with her husband, in "We'd Go Dancing" Lee Hall's wittily unexpected nostalgic realism writing,
"I hated the sod - for thirty three year/We never should have married of that I'm quite clear/He spent the housekeeping money on whisky and beer. . . " becomes wildly romantic "But we'd go dancing and he'd hold me tight/He was air, He was water, He was breath, He was light" but in the morning she sings of sobering up. During this song the drinking miners dance, ducking and diving in and out of pub doors and windows.
"Solidarity" is a three way number, rhythmically very like something upbeat from Cabaret. It starts with the police full of themselves, taunting the miners with comic choreography, straightening their ties, brushing their epaulettes, adjusting their helmets. The miners reply and the ballet class are caught in the middle as miners and policemen dance pas de deux with prepubescent girls. I loved the original moves and the transition into a clog/welly dance with dance steps turning the knees this way and that, like doing the Charleston sideways without the arm movements.
The comedic hit of the show is the introduction of cross dressing eleven year old Michael (Ryan Longbottom). His sexually explicit language is something you might like to think about before taking children to Billy Elliot but in context, for adults, this scene had the audience in stitches. "Expressing Yourself" turns into a tap dance from Billy and Michael with dancers disguised as frocks on a rail complete with hangers in a bizarre, surreal, dream-like interlude. The romantic ballad "Dear Billy (Mam's letter)" is pretty and emotive as Billy reads a letter written for him by his mother (Stepahnie Putson) when she knew she wouldn't live to see him grow up. This heart warming song may make a successful single. The first act ends on Billy's rebellious dance expressing his turmoil while behind him as the strike hardens there is a line of police in full riot gear with riot shields.
Act Two starts with the miners' social club panto with the injection of an enormous Thatcher puppet meistress as the miners face up to Christmas with nothing. I liked this overstated scene least especially as I remember the one it replaces, the breaking of Mrs Elliot's piano in the film to provide firewood. It may have been included to answer critics of the film who wanted more politics and less sentiment but I disagree. Another departure from the film is that here Billy dances a classical ballet duet with his older self (Isaac James) to Tchaikovsky. Billy is raised high up to float above the stage on a wire in this lovely scene. However the musical loses the film's last scene where ten, twelve years on, Billy's father and brother meet grown up Michael at the ballet in London where Billy is appearing in Matthew's Bourne's Swan Lake. The Second Act is not as strong as the first. Mrs Wilkinson and Mr Elliot confront and then relent, Billy travels to London where the vibrant dance "Electricity" assures him of a place. The miners are defeated but this bleak outlook is alleviated by Billy's breaking away for his own future. A fantasy encore finale allows the little girls to show that they can dance in perfect synchronisation.
Hats off to the casting directors! The casting of the children is superb. The success of Billy Elliot rests on their consistent talent. I saw twelve year old Liam Mower play Billy and his dancing is just gorgeous. In the theatre there are no close ups to show the mixed emotions Billy feels. Instead the body language expression is in the movement. I really admire the casting too of these burly men who dance. Where ever did the casting director find these heavy, authentic looking miner/dancers? Haydn Gwynn's lanky, world weary Mrs Wilkinson is a comically tall figure, a little like Joyce Grenfell, attempting to drill her assorted ducklings into dancing like swans. I particularly liked George (Trevor Fox), the ballet class pianist, a bulky lad who joins in the dance numbers with a lumbering gusto.
The substance of this musical is not in the sets which convey realistic place without taking centre stage. I liked the lighting effects for scenes like the one where Billy dances silhouetted against the line of riot policemen. The skill is that one is swept along by the story, the detail contributing to the whole rather than distracting from it.
Billy Elliot is a very fine British musical from the talented Stephen Daldry with great ensemble performances. There is a good helping of eccentricity and humour alongside a more sobering subject matter achieving that rare phenomenon, a musical that makes you think. I loved Peter Darling's choreography and Lee Hall's lyrics. No-one could object to Elton John's pleasant tunes and because most are only heard once, they may become more memorable when given a chance " to grow on one". This is a musical, the British audience will want to return to. Even as early as the opening night, I met enthusiastic people already seeing it again.