Originally published on Theaterscene.net on 11/25/2008 as preserved in Internet Archive – http://web.archive.org/web/20090221071521/http://www.theaterscene.net/ts/articles.nsf/BM/C26EAE1B38C52A948525750D004F970B
Despite the name of the show and its widely perceived notion that it is about a boy dancer the staging and construction of Billy Elliot clearly indicates it is much bigger than that. It refers to a grueling moment in British history, in the 1980’s, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher went to war with the mining industry and a huge part of the country in the north went on strike, essentially dividing England into civil war. Her goal was to break their union regardless of the consequences – no government bailout here! (Thatcher’s aim was to close the mines and import coal – which she ultimately did, destroying entire towns)
Amidst the grittiness and despair of miners and their families fighting for their rights, knowing that if they fail their futures are finished is the unlikely flower of an isolated boy who accidentally discovers an aptitude and, later, a joy for ballet.
And the show is a tug of war between the ugliness of the clash between the miners and the police and the difficult journey of that boy towards expression of his dream to dance, a Depression era hard times musical that resonates even more now than when it opened as a film in the relative affluence of 2000, or as a musical in the London of 3 years ago (Adapted by Lee Hall from his screenplay, also directed by Stephen Daldry).
Indeed, the show’s first moments concentrate on the eve of the strike and its effects on Billy’s family and the attitudes of the strikers, as vociferously voiced by Billy’s older brother Tony (an intense Santino Fontana), and in the body language of the ever amazing Greg Jbara (who can forget him as the sly romantically inclined dancing police chief in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) as he plays his flat footed, sodden minded dad, now emotionally frozen into rigid defiance and anger (as much at the loss of his wife as at the injustice of the working conditions in the mines). A brief ray of light is his dotty, disillusioned old grandma (Carole Shelley, whose comedic flair has not diminished over the years) still capable of a sashay or two as she reminisces about her dead husband, whose only joyous moments were when they danced, in the touching “We’d Go Dancing…It was bliss for an hour or so/But then they called time to go/And in the morning we were sober.”
Lee Hall’s book was inspired by his youth as a working class boy from Newcastle who was considered “different” because of his writing, He substituted dance in the film/musical. Director Daldry’s first job after college was, coincidentally, covering the strike as a reporter and the friends hooked up for a “personal film” that serendipitously caught the eye of Elton John at its first showing in Cannes. Elton was reduced to tears as he identified immediately with it through the similarity of his own relationship with a father who initially ignored his son’s talent and did not acknowledge his success until just before he died, never having seen John perform.
The brilliance of this production is in the happy union of director Stephen Daldry, most at home with plays, and multi award winner choreographer Peter Darling as together they put the book over the temptation of huge dance numbers and substituted the essence of movement in favor of the story. Sometimes the movement is more just mannerisms, especially in the police lineup, probably an inside joke, in which they perform more Charlie Chaplin mannerisms than dance and with the zany little girls who flounce around in their tutus like a Degas picture gone mad. The strikers’ strength is depicted more in their ever shifting group staging than overt clashes.
In several key dramatic moments the scenes constantly rotate on an axis of lines of police shields evolving into a barricade of doors and a wire fence that twists and turns into itself to form a pen for prisoners and a rows of chairs the morph into the dancing school gym. It’s not dance, but its more than just staging – a brilliant new concept of storytelling through a marvelous meld of movement when all three elements of the story intermix so the overall picture of a town in crisis vis a vis its little moments of diversion and Billy’s story are seen at once. And all of this within the versatile minimalist set by Ian MacNeil transforming almost unnoticed from household to meeting room/dance class room to street battleground. No book can do that.
The three Billys: Trent Kowalik, Kiril Kulish and David Alvarez (there is no indication in advance whom you will see) were chosen from 1500 boys who trained arduously for over a year in ballet, tap, contemporary dance, acrobatics, voice and acting, and doing all that in an alien accent for the two hours they are onstage. My “Billy”, Trent Kowalik, was a disappointment. Yes, he beautifully captures the curiosity of first discovering the ballet class, and tentatively trying to execute the instruction to which the girls are oblivious – he can spot point his head in a pirouette and snap his body around without getting dizzy. His chance to shine comes in an amazing fantasy pas de deux with a magnificent male in a dream sequence in which the previously earth bound Billy can pull out the stops – he is dreaming after all – but alas when he should soar he only walks and shadow dancing with the mature partner only emphasized his weakness, so when the town finally stands behind him and sends him off to the audition at the Royal Ballet, one worries more than believes that he is ready. However his background as an Irish Step Dancing champion serves him well in the tap numbers. And he fares better as an actor milking one stage moment for all its worth when a little ballerina who has been stalking him offers to show him her privates and he wavers, suspended in time, slightly teetering toward her and then back as you can practically see his thought processes. He is also beautifully vulnerable on the quiet scenes with his dead mother. and their tender song, “Dear Billy”, and when his friend Michael (Frank Dolce) tentatively approaches a homosexual moment it is handled gently and with empathy. Michael, as the nascent cross dressing gay, later shows that show biz spunk and moxie in “Express Yourself” with Billy, in an hilarious mini-drag queen number with the polish and spirit of Velma & Roxy in Chicago’s finale, in another of those rare moments when choreography breaks loose from the plot lines and goes full glitz tilt. In “Born to Boogie.” the tubby Thommie Ritter sheds his gym clothes in a ridiculous marvelous go-go dance number. “Angry Dance” allows Turlick to capture the furious intensity of Savion Glover’s unique, pent up expressive style last seen in Jelly’s Last Jam. Bravo here. Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes are immensely helpful throughout contrasting the grim with the glitter
Haydn Quinn is the best Brit import next to the show’s creative team. As the chain smoking, dissipated and droll dance teacher she combines the correct mix of disdain for her little ballerinas (as ever an hilariously dysfunctional corps as one will find on any stage) and reluctant belief in Billy, and initially treats him more like a diversion for herself than a dedicated project. But her true feelings come through when, gruff and plainspoken, she stands up for Billy to his foul mouthed brother and domineering father as they would rather have Billy stuck in a dead end lackluster life than take a chance to shine.
As Billy’s ultimately confused father Gregory Jbara has the largest dramatic arc to travel and does it beautifully. Squat of stature, the bravado of an ignorant striker, and demeanor of a man who replaced anger for love after he became a widower at 37, his discomfort and disappointment in his younger son, and rage for forcing him out of shell, is palpable. His wonder/discomfort the first time he saw Billy perform and then gruff denial, priceless. But nothing as touching after the audition when he (and the rest of us) finally are invited into Billy’s inner voice in “Electricity” and learn the full intensity of his desire and dream. Even wordless Jbara conveys volumes.
Elton John proved once again (Lion King, Aida,) that he is great at adapting his songwriting to a dramatic script. “I find it easier writing for a story line than just individual songs” and he succeeds admirably in a wide variety of numbers from the touching “Dear Billy” a heartwrencher between Billy and his Dead mother, “Solidarity” the vociferously defiant anthem of the striking workers, the tender lilting “We’d Go Dancing” as Grandma and the men recreate the lovely waltz of old happier time, “Express Yourself” and” Born to Boogie”, exuberant razz ma tazz Broadway dance numbers.
The show should end when Billy, suitcase in hand, is leaving for the Royal Ballet (he got in, of course) alone onstage staring at the huge Union tapestry. It didn’t.
Or it should end when his friend Michael is alone staring out after him forlornly as Billy leaves for his bright future and the young boy is left behind to a doomed existence. It Didn’t!
Instead, as if they didn’t trust the material, we have not one, but two Busby Berkeley all out production numbers including a Rockette kick line with the entire cast, police. strikers et al, in tutus! WHY???
Imperial Theater, 249 West 45th Street. Tickets: $41.50-$301.50. Tue-Sat 8 pm. Mats, Wed, Sat 2 pm, Sun 3 pm. 212-239-6200.