Thursday, November 20, 2008

Billy Elliot: The Musical

At intermission, I wasn’t really sold, but by the final curtain I felt ready to soar through the air like Billy. Billy Elliot: The Musical tells the same story as the movie, but the tone is quite different. Once I gave in to the funky nature of this version, which has been a hit in London for more than three years, I was hooked, as most of the audience at Broadway's Imperial Theatre seemed to be.

Like the 2000 movie “Billy Elliot,” the musical is about an 11-year-old boy in northeast England who lives with his father and older brother, Tony, both coal miners, and his addled grandmother, his mother having died years earlier. One day after his boxing class, lingering at the gym, Billy gets caught up in the girls’ ballet class that follows and is awakened to his first experience of beauty. He begins taking lessons and discovers he has a gift that can take him far from his bleak world with its lack of opportunity. Stephen Daldry, who directed the charming, simple film, directs this supercharged stage variation as well.

What kept me at first from being moved as I had been by the film was the uneven score, with music by Elton John and lyrics by Lee Hall (who also wrote the book). Some songs I really liked, such as the opening number “The Stars Look Down,” sung by the full company on the eve of what will be a central element of the story, the 1984 miners’ strike that deeply wounds Billy’s community. I also loved the full company’s rousing singing of “Solidarity,” but other songs were limp and disappointing.

Peter Darling’s choreography, however, was a marvel from start to finish, whether traditional for Billy’s ballet performances or stylized, and at times surreal, for larger numbers that intertwine the stories of the dancers, the miners and the police. Because of the demands of the title role, three actors alternate as Billy -- David Alvarez, Kiril Kulish and Trent Kowalik. It was an extremely winning Trent the night I was there.

I also liked Gregory Jbara as Billy’s father. After being the gruff, uneducated miner in the first act, he is able to bring the tenderness of the movie into the second. Afraid Billy will become a “puff” if he pursues ballet, he forbids him from taking lessons. Billy continues in secret until one day his father finds him at it and is awed by his son’s talent. He then makes the painful decision to break ranks with his other son and fellow striking miners to cross the picket line and become a scab to get money for Billy to go to London for an audition to the Royal Ballet School. He breaks into tears, singing, “He could go and he could shine, not just stay here counting time.” In the moving scene that follows, other miners and members of the town come up one by one to offer him a coin or two for Billy’s chance. It is lovely, and one of the reasons I liked the second act better. I was captured on an emotional level beyond just the razzle-dazzle of the earlier scenes.

I did appreciate the humor in the first act. I loved Billy’s friend Michael, played with personality galore by Frank Dolce, who, as in the movie, likes dressing up in his sister’s clothes. “Expressing Yourself,” the scene in which he and Billy tap dance around in girlie clothes, is a riot. (David Bologna alternates as Michael.)

Other key roles are: Haydn Gwynne, who reprises the role she created of dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson in the show's original London cast, Tony-winner Carole Shelley as Grandma and Santino Fontana as Tony. The creative team includes Ian MacNeil (scenic design), Nicky Gillibrand (costume design), Rick Fisher (lighting design) and Paul Arditti (sound design).

The London production, which opened in 2005 and is still playing, won the 2006 Olivier Award for Best New Musical. Darling picked up the Best Theatre Choreographer Award, while the Best Actor in a Musical Award was shared by James Lomas, George Maguire and Liam Mower, who originated the title role.

For tickets to New York’s Billy Elliot, visit or call (212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250. For more information, visit

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