Friday, April 23, 2010

"Billy Elliot" Is Like A Friend's Embrace

Broadway's "Billy Elliot" arrived in Chicago amid the most enthusiastic fanfare. 

I was drawn to the show immediately during last Spring's Tony Awards, where this musical adaptation of the 2000 Film cleaned up with 10 wins.  I enjoyed the movie;  although I had not seen it for a while, the goodwill I had for this story, of a boy in an English mining town who must fight to realize his dream of learning  ballet,  remained with me and continued to inspire.  Friends who had seen this musical in New York or London raved.  My expectations were high, but I felt an anxiety that the show might not live up to them.

Happily, "Billy Elliot" is a smashing example of classic musical theater, its topical edge nicely balanced by its brilliant music and clever staging.  It challenges, or champions, our attitudes (depending what you bring to it) while never forgetting to entertain us. It is exciting, and pleasantly comfortable. It dazzles us with fresh music, heartbreaking beauty, surprising humor, and wry political statement, in a conventionally well-paced story about a spirited and talented young underdog.  No wonder "Billy Elliot" is so well-loved; you root for it like the friendly, non-threatening kid you once knew in school.

Those who have ever had an all-consuming artistic passion, or at least a dream to create or perform, can't help but identify with Billy and his struggle to convince his family members, who are challenged just to  survive during a 1980's miner's strike, to let him pursue his talents. 

Gay people, especially those who have had to struggle to live genuine lives of honest self-expression, will recognize Billy's attempts to dance the ballet, while trying to convince the naysayers in his midst (as well as, maybe, himself) that he is not a "poof".  It is a story of discovering who you are, and having the courage as well as the support to realize your true calling.  The way Billy and his family overcome their preconceived notions and prejudices and rally together against a backdrop of violence and ignorance, form the heart of this dazzling production.

It is an intricate and successful combination of earthy backdrop,  graced with an appreciation of the higher arts.  With a light touch and carefully worked-out characterizations and music, it all succeeds beautifully. 

Credit must go to Elton John and Lee Hall, for their Music, Book, and Lyrics, for their understanding of the milieu, as well as their deep identification with the story's personal elements; to Stephen Daldry, who has adapted his film and made it buoyant for the stage, expertly controlling the shadings, creating a welcome and lighthearted first act, darkening a bit in the second before the expected warmth and triumph of the conclusion; and to a lively and uninhibited cast, especially young J. P. Viernes as Billy, and Armand Schultz as his rich-voiced, working-class dad.  The designs of the sets and the lighting turn a dreary industrial setting reminiscent of  a modern-day "Oliver" into something familiar, more colorful and fantastic, its set pieces delighting audiences of all ages and making this reviewer often shout with child-like laughter. 

Although Margaret Thatcher is spared no scorn, the show is not heavy or political, but personal, one of great joy and hope.  I left feeling like everything in life for me is still possible. I wondered how the play would provide the exposition necessary to help American viewers understand the context of the story; and so, emblematic of the show's simple yet brilliant creativity, documentary film clips are used effectively as a backdrop to a rousing opening number ("The Stars Look Down"). 

In fact, the tunes are terrific and many of them deserve to become standards (in a world where it is still possible to enjoy a variety of music and where great songs stay relevant through the ages).  "Dear Billy" runs through the show as a motif, a moving dialog of love between boy and mother; "We'd Go Dancing" is a Grandmother's bawdy reminiscence of her late "bastard" husband, typical of the show's method of taking us to the point of pathos and sidestepping it in surprising ways. "Angry Dance" introduces metal elements and folds in themes from"Swan Lake" for a pulse-pounding climax to Act One, all fire and frustration and dashed hopes, leaving us hungry for the second act.

Billy's discovery of his talent under the awed eye of the comic Mrs. Wilkinson (Emily Skinner) takes the show into a new phase.  Initially, the all-girl ballet class, with its zany intructor,and slovenly (yet surprisingly nimble) piano player Mr. Braithwaite (Blake Hammond), is a cheery, bright, slapstick setting of perpetual movement where Billy gets lost, but quickly finds his way, and himself.  The developing relationship between Mrs. Wilkinson and Billy, as she becomes a teacher, mentor, friend, and surrogate mother, is one of the loveliest story arcs in the musical.

Of all of the numbers, two stood out as especially significant to this writer, touching chords of my own efforts at re-invention.  First is "Express Yourself".  This is a loopy duet between Billy and his best friend, Michael (Gabriel Rush).  In Boxing Class, Billy and Michael are reluctant sparring partners.  Soon, we learn that Michael prefers to wear colorful, hilarious dresses,  grand gowns and boas, and to dance to show tunes.  Billy, who has almost accidentally discovered his natural affinity for ballet, is happy to join his friend.  The number becomes a kid's-eye view of a lavish Broadway show, complete with gigantic dancing dresses and a silver lame curtain. When Michael finally kisses Billy, we know Michael's longing, and although Billy doesn't quite understand, something keeps him drawn to his admiring friend.  These are not violent fighters, but budding artists.

(Personal digression: in school I was made to wrestle a boy in gym class, and during the match I hit him in the eye with my elbow.  I was mortified as he cried in pain, while the Instructor screamed at me to finish the match and pin him.  The boxing sequence here recreated that distaste for violent sport with amazing honesty.)

The second and most awe-inspiring number is a duet between Billy and an older "self", a mature version of Billy years hence, physically developed, graceful,  forgiving of the youngster's eager exuberance, and tenderly supportive of the kid's development.  With a single spinning chair for each as a prop, and "Swan Lake" swelling from the orchestra, it builds to an emotional climax of uncommon excitement and power. It was so warming, so imaginative, that when the bigger, stronger dancer lifts Billy, who literally soars above an empty, fog-swept stage, the profoundly personal way this number touched me was almost too intimate to describe in words. 

The backstory involvong the mineworkers' strike and the heartbreaking result of their resistance offers a backdrop that wisely does not intrude on the essentially comic and inspiring story of Billy and his dreams.  We have come to know these people, faults and all, and we have been invited to join them in "solidarity" with each other as they forget their differences to help this boy follow his heart to the Royal Ballet.  During Billy's school interview, when he's asked what dancing feels like, he responds "it's being hungry and full at the same time".  Exactly.

"Billy Elliot", like the  title character's friend Michael, enthusiastically and generously reaches out to plant a kiss on its audience; and like young Billy, you might be tempted to run back on stage and return that embrace.


  1. Love the soundtrack to this. "Solidarity, solidarity/Solidarity forever..." When we saw the commercials for the original show, my friend and I would stop what we were doing and just watch in awe.

  2. Walter, I hope you get a chance to see this. I would love to get your casting ideas if they ever turn the musical into a film!