Also see Ann's review of As You Like It
After winning ten Tony Awards in 2009, Billy Elliot: The Musical ran another year and a half on Broadway before closing on January 8, 2012, with a total 1304 performances. The first national tour consisted of sit-down/extended stops in Chicago, Toronto and San Francisco. The second national tour has played a more traditional schedule beginning in Durham, North Carolina, in the fall of 2010. Though touring managers changed, a few stops were cancelled or postponed, and the production was scaled down, it has been mostly well received.
In Pittsburgh for a two-week stop, the tour brings every bit of the heart and energy seen on Broadway. Each Billy Elliot cast includes three young men in the title role, and they take turns in the performance schedule. It's a challenging and exhausting role, as Billy is on stage for close to the entire performance, performing several solo dances.
The musical (book and lyrics by Lee Hall and music by Elton John) is based on the 2000 film, and both follow the same story. In the mid-1980s, Billy (Ty Forhan, at the performance attended) and his family are living in a coal mining town in England. A miners strike dominates the local residents, including Billy's widowed Dad (Rich Hebert) and brother Tony (Cullen R. Titmas). But 11-year-old Billy has dreams that don't involve going down a mine shaft. When local boxing lessons don't work out, a ballet class held at the same facility becomes the route to Billy's dreams, with the help of dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (Leah Hocking). Billy's dance education is kept a secret from his family, and when they find out, misunderstanding and anger cause a temporary riff.
Young Forhan is a terrific dancer. His performance of the stunning (Peter Darling's choreography) "Angry Dance" is well done, yet he excels in the balletic movements in the second act. Herbert is gruff yet caring as Dad, and Hocking takes every advantage in the showy show-businessy role of Mrs. Wilkinson. The whole cast is solid if not revelatory.
This fascinating tale works better in the film (also written by Hall), mostly due to the seriousness of the the strike and the politics involved. The score (mediocre) and choreography (excellent) make it a musical, but this often works against the story, frequently veering toward musical comedy, which fights with the other elements. The show involves children, but it's a tough show for children as audience members: it's long, the accents frequently render lines unclear, there are songs and scenes about U.K. politics, and a few elements would need to be explained (for example, the character of Billy's best friend, Michael, Jacob Zelonky at the performance I attended, likes to dress up in women's clothing, and that is treated as comedy).
It's not surprising that the sets by Ian MacNeil aren't as complicated as what was seen on Broadway, but they are more than adequate.
Billy Elliot: The Musical continues through February 12 at the Benedum Center. For tickets and performance information, call 412-456-6666 or visit trustarts.org.