Regional Reviews: Seattle
Billy Elliot The Musical Explodes with Electricity
Also see David's review of Iron Curtain
I am not, nor have I ever claimed to be, a dancer, as my two left feet have proven time and again at dance calls for "movers." But among my favorite musicals are A Chorus Line, 42nd Street, and of course West Side Story. Well, add Billy Elliot The Musical to the top of that list. Not for its fine but hardly top-notch Elton musical score, or its solid book and lyrics by Lee Hall, but for the dancing, with a big top hat off to choreographer Peter Darling, and the direction, executed with grace and heart by ace film director Peter Daldry. If any show ever made me bemoan my klutz status, it is this fine national tour of the deservingly Tony Award winning Best Musical of 2009. Having not seen the Broadway version, I was a bit afraid the tour might seem somehow less than what I was expecting. It was more than I imagined: touching, rib-tickling and passionate, and easily the best Broadway tour to hit Seattle since the century turned.
Based on the superb film (also directed by Daldry) which it closely follows, Billy Elliot is an 11-year-old Northern England lad who by accident ends up hanging around a second-rate, ballet class for pre-teen girls, and rapidly finds it a miraculous escape from a rather grim, motherless home, where his mine-worker Dad and elder brother have just gone into a national strike (based on fact) against the tactics of then British Prime Minister Margaret "Maggie" Thatcher. Billy's story cross-cuts with that of the strike, as his encouraging, salty-tongued dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson realizes Billy's great potential, even while his Dad and brother Tony, embroiled in the strike, rise up against him becoming a dancer, and in there eyes, a "poof." Billy is not remotely gay (though his ebulliently flamboyant pal Michael seems three sashays down the Yellow Brick Road already) but he has an amazing talent, which ultimately leads to a climactic audition for the Royal Ballet, where he is ... nope, no spoiler here. Though based on a popular film, it is hardly one that everyone and his brother has seen. A few odd audience members had a bit of trouble with the Northern English dialect, but dance and music tell so much of the story that this shouldn't deter the non-linguists planning to attend.
A very strong, Broadway veteran-laden cast leads this ensemble show, with top-billing given( and deservedly so) to Tony winner Faith Prince as Mrs. Wilkinson, who lands all her laughs, works slyly on the tear ducts, sings with all the Broadway brass you'd imagine and, well, as one of her songs says, seems "Born to Boogie." Billy's Dad is heartily portrayed by Rich Hebert, whose solo "Deep into the Ground" is remarkably moving. The spirit of Billy's beloved late Mum is played touchingly but without bathos by lovely Beverly Ward, and Billy's dottily endearing Grandma is sassily played by stage vet Patti Perkins, who has her own glorious solo in "We'd Go Dancing."
But of course the title role is so incredibly demanding that it is standard practice to have several alternating Billys in each company. Our performance's Billy was vibrant Lex Ishimoto, one of four on this tour (Giuseppe Bausilio, Kylend Hetherington and Daniel Russell are his counterparts), and the young triple threat sings with assurance and clarity, has mastered his dialect, and dances like your wildest dream come true, especially when teamed in a fantasy "Swan Lake" excerpt with exceptional dancer Maximilien A. Baud as an older Billy, and solo in his act two rouser "Electricity." Ishimoto is also a great foil for the antics of Griffin Birney as his fey mate Michael in their cross-dressing duet "Expressing Yourself."
Other standouts in this grand company include Jeff Kready as Billy's headstrong brother Tony, Joel Blum as boxing teacher George, and Rachel Mracna as Debbie, the bratty daughter of Mrs. Wilkinson who develops a bit of a crush on Billy. The whole company takes part in one of those post-plot finales where they all get to dance, just the way we in the audience would if we could.
Ian MacNeil's ingenious scenic design becomes many different locales without ever changing its basic layout, Rick Fisher's lighting design is masterful, and costume designer Nicky Gillibrand outfits the large cast most adroitly. Not all the sound issues had been worked out by press night, but the cast largely managed to compensate for it.
The sizable crowd embraced Billy Elliot The Musical as much, if not more than they had those dueling diva witches when Wicked first cast its spell on our Emerald City. It's not a cheap ticket for a good seat at the Paramount, but you get what you paid for at this one. Sheer musical theatre magic.
Billy Elliot The Musical runs through April 3, 2011 at The Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine Street in Downtown Seattle. Tickets start at $25.50 and are on sale now and are available online at stgpresents.org and tickets.com, by calling 877-STG-4TIX (784-4849) or in person at The Paramount Theatre Box Office (Monday through Friday, 10am to 6pm). For more information on the tour, visit www.billyelliottour.com/.
See the list of this season's theatre offerings in the Seattle area.- David Edward Hughes