I am no fan of the 2000 film that inspired this musical. It is a film that received an unbelievable amount of praise despite its hokey plotting, unlikable two-dimensional characters, overacting and patronizing homophobia. When Elton John and company announced they were bringing the story of this would be working-class, dancing ingénue to the stage I rolled my eyes and wrote it off, to be forgotten.
This was not to last as a friend and fellow theatre enthusiast attended the show not long after its premier in London and has been singing its praises ever since. So on his word, and with a good amount of skepticism, I found myself at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway… and sure enough, he was right.
BILLY ELLIOT is set in a Northern England and is surrounded by events of the 1984 UK coal miners' strike. Billy lives in one of the small communities whose livelihood depends on the coal mining industry and is threatened by the proposed closures by the government. His family is a father, an older brother, both coal miners entrenched in the strike, and a grandmother slowly drifting into dementia all broken not only by the strike but also by the death of their matriarch.
We find Billy a lost soul, haunted by the death of his mother and struggling to cope with his family’s ills. He unwittingly finds sanctuary in a ballet class led by a wry, jaded instructor. Though initially wary of his talent, she comes to take a vested interest in Billy's gift. They find inspiration and comfort in each other. It is a well written and performed relationship that is truly moving without being saccharine.
Billy also draws much from other figures in his life. This is where the musical succeeds and the film failed. Previously vapid characters here serve as a genuine influence on Billy
to pursue his unlikely dream.
Billy’s grandmother, in one of the show’s best numbers, reflects on her life and how she would do things differently; abandoning the status quo and living life to her heart’s content. His father, who vehemently objects to Billy’s newfound passion, takes time in understanding his son's gifts through a series of thoughtful scenes that begin with a lament of his own boyhood dreams.
The show’s most surprising turn is Billy’s best friend, Michael. The film’s most aggravating character, who served little than being a litmus as to what is ‘gay’ and what is not, here encourages Billy to **** the archetype and embrace diversity in another of the show’s best numbers.
The only exception is Billy’s older brother who never really evolves beyond his frustrated, violent nature. The character is a near echo to the father without the thoughtful development. Instead, he carries his rage and then, like flicking a switch, comes around in the end. It's a disposable part that does not necessitate the presence it is given.
Great acting and marvelous choreography abound on this stage. The cast as a whole, especially the younger actors, gives a great deal to their performances. However, four are most notable. Carole Shelley plays Billy’s grandmother with a great deal of humor. Haydn Gwynne, who plays the rode-hard instructor Ms. Wilkinson, gives the character a hard edge while retaining a great deal of compassion. The part of Michael, rotated due to the actor’s youth, was for me was played with an infectious gusto by Keenan Johnson. Lastly Billy; also rotated and for me portrayed by Trent Kowalik, plays the demanding role with great energy and confidence.
Elton John's music is memorable without being flashy. It is understated but plays with great effect within the context of the show. There are no real pop-darlings as you might expect, no vocal powerhouses and that's just fine. Instead, the music serves to enrich the story and its characters and performers take several numbers to show-stopping levels.
Staging is impressive without being overwhelming. The centerpiece is a tall spinning cylindrical staircase, which rises from a trap in the stage floor. It is flanked by the family’s kitchen and topped by Billy’s bedroom. The bedroom is capable of detaching itself from the larger piece and standing on its own. It’s a subtle but remarkable effect. Lighting is modest but powerful where it counts; ELECTRICTY being a great example.
The musical BILLY ELLIOT truly is an exciting, heartfelt show and for me an especially joyous surprise. It’s not flawless but pretty damn close.