The touring production of Billy Elliot, the Musical, now ensconsed at the Kennedy Center Opera House, is a driving, energetic, and oddly appropriate holiday feast for thoughtful theatergoers. Spun off from the eponymous film version, the stage musical has a less oppressive feel than the original. But it still packs an emotional and political punch, particularly in the context of our current economic doldrums.
Billy Elliot is the improbable tale of a widowed English coal miner’s kid who decides he wants to be a ballet dancer—and possesses the raw talent to make it so. If he gets a break.
The show’s premise on this side of the pond might be comparable to a situation in which Rocky Balboa’s kid aspired to becoming, say, a Paris-based dress designer. The reception of Billy’s dad and older brother to Billy’s career plan is predictably and nastily negative. Rough and tumble physical laborers for generations, neither dad nor brother Tony can cotton to the humiliating vision of their son and brother becoming a ballet dancer, a profession with the reputation of being suitable only for “poofers” (homosexuals), at least within their small and close-knit coal mining community.
Worse still, it’s a class thing, always a much stronger issue in Britain than it ever has been here, “Occupy Wall Street” notwithstanding. Ballet and the arts in general are viewed in Billy’s town as the realm of their elite oppressors. And in the world of Billy Elliot, this is a particularly thorny issue, as the action is taking place in 1984-1985—the time when the National Union of Coal Miners (NUM) violently squared off against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the National Coal Board (NCB). The miners’ cataclysmic strike, combined with Thatcher’s iron-fisted opposition to them, ultimately destroyed the bulk of the British coal industry, taking thousands of coal mining jobs along with it.
The script’s sympathy with the left-wing coal miners’ point of view is unmistakable, particularly in the hilarious and blatantly anti-Thatcher community Christmas Play sequence that opens the show’s second stanza. Yet the politics prove strangely balanced in the end when the miners, in defeat, grudgingly recognize that forces larger than either them or Maggie Thatcher have long been at work to shut down their inefficient mines.
As a result, in the midst all the class struggle hoopla, the miners—and Billy’s brother and dad—do an about-face and back Billy’s ambitions as perhaps a first step toward a new world for working class kids with higher aspirations.
All this seems like pretty heavy subject matter for a stage musical. But Billy Elliot, the Musical, deftly pulls it things off with panache, unlike the harder edged film version of 2000.
Chalk this success up to an incredibly strong, incredibly talented cast of singers and dancers. First among them is the chief character of this show, young Billy Elliot himself.
During this run, Billy is slated to be portrayed by five different youngsters. On the show’s formal opening night, Lex Ishimoto made his DC debut in the role, and quite a stunning debut it was. While his singing was slightly awkward and early adolescent, that wasn’t a problem since that’s about where young Billy is at this point in his life and the vocals sounded about right.
Better still, though, this is a role that requires strong acting chops and even more strenuous dance preparation. And it was here that Ishimoto truly excelled. Voice and diction were excellent, even encumbered, as they were, with his authentic-sounding Northern England-Yorkish accent. And his dance moves, from ballet to jazz and tap, were fluid, masterful, and, at times, truly eye-popping. Here’s guessing that the tour’s other Billies—Ty Forhan, Kylend Hetherington, J. P. Viernes, and Zach Manske—prove to be equally talented.
Hat tips as well to the remaining members of the primary cast. Rich Hebert’s rough, tough, and crude Dad offered an almost shockingly authentic portrayal of a tragedy-hardened lifetime coal miner—finally revealing a redemptive, tough love for his young son in the end. Equally rough-hewn was Cullen R. Titmas as Tony, Billy’s combative, confrontational older brother. Volatile and ready for violence, Titmas’ Tony will remind movie fans of James Caan’s bristling performance in the role of Sonny Corleone in the original “Godfather.” You never know when he’s going to explode. But his portrayal also becomes more nuanced as it slowly dawns on him that all his efforts are going to be for naught.
Rounding out Billy’s dysfunctional, beleaguered family is Grandma, deftly played here by Cynthia Darlow. Hard-edged, seemingly a bit senile, but always ready with a surprisingly witty jab or a tasteless but appropriately crude comment, Darlow’s Grandma adds both humor and hard-earned wisdom to a show where the hot-heads often seem in control.
Helping Grandma out in the funny department on opening night was young Ben Cook as Billy’s friend Michael, who comes out to Billy as gay. Frankly, this notion is perhaps a bit much in a show that already deals with this issue in a different context. But Zelonky’s unselfconsciousness in the role allows it to blend seamlessly into the rest of the musical anyway, leavened as his portrayal is with countless broad and light comic touches that seem to flow naturally from the character. Bravo!
Last but certainly not least, Leah Hocking is perfect in the role of Mrs. Wilkinson, the tough but beaten-down dance instructor. She has a heart of gold, as we might expect. But she keeps it well-hidden, the better to face down the combative males in the mining community who hate and resent the performing arts world she represents. She’s able to hold her own, which, of course, finally forces the miners to accord her a stiff, grudging admiration in the end.
The remaining members of the ensemble, including a few minor characters, blend into an effective chorus of townspeople who provide commentary and terrific choral numbers at just the right time, not to mention some dynamite choreography. The electronically enhanced pit band could have used a few more players, but the sound design came off with surprising realism anyway.
BTW, amidst this show’s many high points, the production saves the best for last with its dynamite, formal encore. Watch for it. We won’t spoil things with any more details.
One mild downside to Billy Elliot is its musical score, penned by Elton John. Without a doubt, the music is energetic, direct, and always thematically appropriate. But the bulk of the songs are workmanlike and lacking in inventiveness, while the score is pretty much devoid of memorable tunes. That said, the effect is vaguely similar to that of verismo opera—sung drama whose music is molded more toward defining and underlying the stage action rather than providing a bunch of singable tunes.
Billy Elliot is a hugely enjoyable yet bittersweet musical whose performances here seem to resonate strangely with our own times as 2011 draws to a close. The show’s miners and families confront a future in which nothing again will ever be the same: a future defined by unknowable unknowns, a future that no one can define let alone predict. The surprise is that it feels so familiar.
Billy Elliot, the Musical
book and lyrics by Lee Hall
music by Elton John
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Music Direction by Susan Draus
Choreography by Peter Darling
Presented byTthe Kennedy Center
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Running time: Two hours and fifty minutes with one intermission.