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Chicago by John Olson

Billy Elliot: The Musical
Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theatre

When a big Broadway musical comes to town, the ticket-buying public's first question may be "will the production be as big and as good as the original?" And even if it is, will it be a carbon-copy of a frozen show mostly assembled by an assistant director? The answers to all of the above questions for the Chicago production of Billy Elliot: The Musical are "no." This show is arguably better than the Broadway version. The reports that the entire creative team of director Stephen Daldry, composer Elton John and bookwriter/lyricist Lee Hall have been in Chicago since January preparing the piece are borne out by the show on stage. There's now a greater connection to the characters and to the emotional truth of the historical events in which the story is set than there was in the show I saw on Broadway last June.

Billy Elliot
Cesar Corrales, Emily Skinner and Company

Reimagining as a musical the film Hall wrote and Daldry directed was a tricky proposition. The film's story of a young boy in Northern England discovering a love of dance and finding a way to make a life for himself quite different from that of the coal miners who'd populated his town for generations was told on screen in a gritty and uncompromising manner. In showing the hard lives of the miners, as they are facing even greater uncertainty in the midst of the 1984 British Miner's Strike, it made the audience confront some depressing stuff before rewarding them with a well-earned feel-good resolution.

Poverty and injustice have been successful subjects for musicals—Les Mis being the most obvious example—but Billy Elliot's creators chose to brighten the piece up with significant doses of fantasy to show how Billy, his cross-dressing friend Michael and his dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson picture something prettier and better than the reality in which they live. On Broadway, I found the balance between the happy numbers and the grim situation of the characters to be out-of-kilter. The production seemed to be working too hard to please the audience and provide traditional Broadway musical production values. Numbers like "Shine," Expressing Yourself" and "Born to Boogie" went beyond mere comic relief from the harshness of the story, and seemed to almost come from a different show entirely. Granted, musicals are almost by definition fantastical, but the human reality of the actual events that inspired the story has to be respected or the whole proposition risks being a little phony. The tragic events of the West Virginia mine disaster that occurred less than a week before the Chicago Billy Elliot opening ironically and coincidentally raised the stakes for this particular production.

Through some minor tweaks and smart casting choices, Daldry and company have evened out the tone considerably and maintain a connection throughout to the journeys of Billy and the townsfolk. The emotional impact is heightened greatly. Much of this is to the credit of Armand Schultz as Billy's dad Jackie and Patrick Mulvey as brother Tony. While Gregory Jbara won a Tony Award for his work as Jackie Elliot, he struck me as too charming and funny to be the lonely, nearly broken man that is Billy's father. Jackie is a young widower and striking mine-worker with no income, caretaker for a demented mother and confronted with behaviors from Billy that are entirely foreign to him. Schultz lands Jackie's funny lines well enough, but he still communicates the pain and anxiety of the man. On top of that, Schultz has a beautiful singing voice that heightens the moments of his two second-act solos. Mulvey's Tony, an on–strike worker as well, is fiery and passionate about the strike. His conflicts with Jackie and Billy are believable and disturbing. The intensity of these two performances does much to raise and maintain the emotional stakes of the show. The scene in which the townspeople raise the money for Billy's audition trip to London is now so real and so earned it gives the piece a new emotional depth.

Emily Skinner, the top-billed Broadway veteran of the cast, is a tough and gritty Mrs. Wilkinson. Though I'd question some of her choices in "Shine" (in which she seems too much the diva, playing to the audience instead of barking instructions to her students), she's mostly a tough cookie with a realistic view of the world that doesn't take guff from anyone. She handles her vocal and dance numbers with a skill that will surprise no one who's followed her career in Broadway musicals.

Chicago has four boys alternating as Billy. The opening night honors went to Cesar Corrales, a Canadian dancer with no acting credits listed in his Playbill bio, who is nonetheless a knockout in every department. His Billy is a spunky kid with tons of energy. He shows us from the first scenes how Billy—whether hopscotching down the sidewalk or breaking into dance while sparring with his boxing teacher—has the gift of movement within him. He's smart and strong and Corrales plays him with a confidence and precision that belie his 13 years. His dancing skills are stunning and he acts through song most convincingly—his performance of "Electricity" has a defiant tone that brings the show to an emotional peak. Alternating in the role are Tommy Batchelor (Broadway's first understudy who later joined the regular rotation), Giuseppe Bausilio (a 12-year-old from Switzerland), and J.P Viernes.

Keean Johnson, Broadway's first understudy for Michael who was later promoted to alternate, did the honors as Michael for the press performance in suitably showy form. He alternates with Gabriel Rush. Cynthia Darlow is a crusty old Grandma who delivers "We'll Go Dancing," the song about her disappointing marriage to her late husband, with regret but no self-pity. Susie McMonagle is the sweet and clear-voiced Mum, singing to Billy through his memories.

Early in this review, I said the show was smaller than on Broadway and it is, but in ways that are either unnoticeable or are improvements. True, the set piece of the Elliot's kitchen with the spiral staircase going up to Billy's room no longer ascends from a trap door center stage. It's now rolled on from the wings stage left and it gets on a lot faster, keeping the show moving just a little bit better. (Watching the Broadway production, I found the unit a little distracting in the middle of the community room set anyway.) To allow space for bringing the staircase on, the stage left wall of the community room is shortened, but the cutout section is dressed. It works just fine. Also, the miners don't descend into the mine by elevator in the final scene, but an equally effective lighting effect is used to accomplish the same point. Reportedly, the ensemble and orchestra have reduced numbers versus Broadway, but I don't think most in the audience would notice those reductions.

In my first trip to this piece, I felt Billy Elliot, while a stunning achievement in many respects, fell short of being as artistically successful as it might have been because the showy sunniness of some of the musical numbers seemed to compromise the darker elements of the situation. On this second viewing, and with the piece re-imagined slightly by its creators, I no longer have that concern. While I still don't agree with all the choices (would the striking miners really have the money to spend on such an elaborate Christmas pageant mocking Maggie Thatcher?), the balance between fantasy and reality, between musical comedy and realism, now works to tell the story and serve the characters. A subtle change in the curtain call helps the audience to process the story's resolution of mixed emotions (good for Billy, bad for the community). Daldry is now allowing a few extra seconds for the audience to take in the power of the final scene before bringing the cast back on stage for a cathartic curtain call. They've also forgone the neon "Billy" upstage in the curtain call and the celebration seems a bit more genuine because of it.

With so much attention is given to the accomplishments of staging the piece—the feat of finding and rehearsing boys who can act, sing and dance the demanding title role—short shrift has been given to the skill and innovations of the writing and staging. Hall and Daldry have not done musicals before this one, but they've managed to create an effective one that respects the traditions of the genre without becoming formulaic. It's book-heavier than most, allowing it to establish characters more fully than musicals often do. Songs are included judiciously—with only fifteen numbers and the relatively few that spring from dialogue are emotionally earned. Hall deserves kudos for finding a way to give musical voice to the characters of his screenplay—Billy, Dad and Grandmother—who were largely non-verbal in the film and not the sort of people one would expect to burst into song. Elton John's varied score establishes time and place and gives musical voice to the characters and townspeople, yet it still has a consistent voice of its own. It may be the best theater score yet to come from a pop singer/songwriter.

Daldry and choreographer Peter Darling have visualized the piece in some stunning ways. The confrontation between the police and the miners in "Solidarity," played against the activity in the dance class, is a brilliant juxtaposition of the ugliness and the beauty existing side by side in the town. Darling's dances have a range that covers tap, ballet, and also creates a vocabulary that depicts the violent confrontations between strikers and police.

Already a hit for the past five years in its London and New York incarnations, the creators might have easily chosen not to tinker with something that, from a commercial standpoint, was not broken. Their willingness to continue refining Billy Elliot: The Musical may just increase its critical and artistic stature as the years pass.

Billy Elliot: The Musical is in an open-ended run at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, Chicago. Tickets are on sale through October 24, 2010, through Broadway in Chicago box offices, by phone at (800) 775-2000 and online at www.BroadwayinChicago.com. Twelve rush tickets ($25.00) go on sale the day of each performance (11 a.m. on Sundays) at the Ford Center/Oriental Theatre box office. As many as 38 additional seats, subject to availability at select performances, may be made available. Rush ticket limit is two tickets per patron and all seats are limited view.


Photo: Joan Marcus

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-- John Olson



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