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Billy Elliot: The Musical

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 13, 2008

Billy Elliot: The Musical Based on the Universal Pictures/Studio Canal Film. Book and Lyrics by Lee Hall. Music by Elton John. Directed by Stephen Daldry. Choreography by Peter Darling. Set Design by Ian MacNeil. Associate Director Julian Webber. Sound Design by Paul Arditti. Lighting Design by Rick Fisher. Costume Design by Nick Gillibrand. Music Director David Chase. Musical Supervision and Orchestrations by Martin Koch. Hair, Wig and Make-Up Designer Campbell Young. Cast: Haydn Gwynne, Gregory Jbara, Carole Shelley, Santino Fontana, and introducing David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik, Kiril Kulish, with David Bologna, Frank Dolce, Stephen Hanna, Joel Hatch, Leah Hocking, Thommie Retter, Erin Whyland, Juliette Allen Angelo, Tommy Batchelor, Kevin Bernard, Grady McLeod Bowman, Heather Ann Burns, Maria Connelly, Samantha Czulada, Kyle DesChamps, Eboni Edwards, Brianna Fragomeni, Greg Graham, Eric Gunhus, Meg Guzulescu, Izzy Hanson-Johnston, Keean Johnson, Donnie Kehr, Cara Kjellman, Kara Klein, David Koch, Jeff Kready, Aaron Kaburick, Stephanie Kurtzuba, David Larsen, Caroline London, Merle Lousie, Marina Micalizzi, Mitchell Michaliszyn, Matthew Mindler, Darrell Grand Moultrie, Tessa Netting, Daniel Oreskes, Jayne Paterson, Liz Pearce, Corrieanne Stein, Jamie Torcellini, Grant Turner, Casey Whyland.
Theatre: Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes, including intermission
Schedule: Beginning November 17: Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm, Sunday at 3pm
Beginning December 21: Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday through Friday at 8pm, Saturday and Sunday at 2pm & 8pm
Audience: May be inappropriate for 8 and under. (It contains strong language and some scenes of confrontation between policemen and miners.) Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Ticket prices: $41.50 to $351.50
Tickets: Telecharge

Kiril Kulish.
Photo by David Scheinmann.

Passion, power, and freedom explode from the boy at the center of the musical Billy Elliot whenever he's allowed - or whenever he allows himself - to take to his feet and express his pain in movement. Born to a family of coal miners in the U.K.'s County Durham, Billy has never known the primal ecstasy of creation in its purest and most elemental state, but once he tastes it he cannot return to the artless world of his birth. It may be a cliché, but for Billy it's true: He comes alive only when he dances.

Exactly the same is true of Stephen Daldry, Lee Hall, and Elton John's adaptation of the same-titled 2000 film, which just arrived at the Imperial amid acclaim and glittery promise it largely fails to meet. A hit in London, where it opened three years ago and continues to run, this show is comparatively lean pickings for Americans raised on dynamism-defining dance titles like On the Town, West Side Story, and A Chorus Line. Unlike those shows, but like its title character, Billy Elliot struggles mightily to unearth its musical soul.

Haydn Gwynne.
Photo by David Scheinmann.

Indeed, for much of the first half hour, director Daldry and librettist-lyricist Hall (both of whom also did the film) join composer John in being more concerned with distributing exigencies of plot than with careful crafting. As we're introduced to Billy's father (Gregory Jbara), brother Tony (Santino Fontana), grandmother (Carole Shelley), instructor-to-be Mrs. Wilkinson (Haydn Gwynne, in the role she originated in London), and the others who constitute Billy's black-dust world, it barely seems that the creators are trying to assemble a musical at all.

Which isn't to say there are no songs. "The Stars Look Down," a call-to-arms for the soon-to-strike miners, is so blasé in sentiment and presentation that it could be underscoring. Grandma's ballroom specialty, "We'd Go Dancing," is an enervating, non-transformative rumination on her 33 years tripping the light fantastic with a less-than-fantastic husband. Mrs. Wilkinson introduces Billy, on the lam from boxing lessons, to the world of ballet with "Shine," a genially generic uplift for her and her all-girl corps that focuses on unleashing the gifts you don't actually possess.

Then there is the opening filmstrip explaining the background of the era (1984-1985), in which then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher denationalized the coal industry and thus inspired union uprisings, and scenes of Billy's stifling family life and the poverty the stricken-and-striking Britons must endure. As drearily staged on Ian MacNeil's meeting-hall almost-unit set and unaggressively lit by Rick Fisher, the action operates under an atmosphere less of economic oppression than of theatrical ambivalence.

Then the sparkling starts. In the number "Solidarity," the strikers take on the police as Billy's lessons guide him from clumsiness to physical grace. The glory of his ever-improving pirouettes, so peacefully fluid against the angrily angular backdrop of underclass ugliness, ushers in a hush of beauty that heralds the beginning of a work less calculated and more naturally heartfelt. It doesn't last. Only during Billy's leaps, chasses, and arabesques, executed in fits of exasperation and exultation as he strives first to escape himself and later to become himself by auditioning for the Royal Ballet School, do the show's combating components unify.

Billy's remembrances of his dead mother (Leah Hocking) are more treacle-smothered than honest; numbers like his cross-dressing romp with his skirt-loving friend Michael ("Express Yourself"), his first private lesson (called "Born to Boogie" - at a ballet class?), and the Act II-opening political plaint "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher" are tone-torpedoing showstoppers; and most of Daldry's staging is listless and distant well beyond what would suggest emotional disconnection. Worse, the political backdrop, so vital to understanding Billy's uniqueness, is rotely and unexcitingly rendered, leaving one to wonder why producers were ever concerned it would be incomprehensible to Americans. As presented here, it's too simplistic to convincingly propel Billy into his own personal revolution.

The film avoided such problems by amplifying the magic of dance gradually, enabling a clearer vision of the existences warring for Billy and inspiring a more satisfying turnaround as Billy's enthusiasm spreads. Here, Billy fulfills his promise - if only in his fantasies - early and often: in the second act's "Electricity," answering the question "What does it feel like when you're dancing?"; in the frenetic first-act finale, in which he repudiates his loudly reluctant father as riots erupt in the streets; and in a duet with his imaginary older self (Stephen Harris) to a prerecorded full-orchestra track of Swan Lake (a nice, if jarring, change from Martin Koch's tinny, anemic orchestrations). With Billy's dreams so tangible throughout, he has few barriers to overcome.

Gregory Jbara (center) with the ensemble.
Photo by David Scheinmann.

In these scenes, choreographer Peter Darling, also a veteran of the film, locates within the mundane the seeds of the extraordinary, and encourages them to grow to their fullest heights. His contributions neither shatter existing genres nor invent new ones, but succeed at their sole goal of representing and releasing Billy's torment. The score is even more functional: dramatically viable, yes, but tunefully and lyrically bland. John's music nonetheless comprises his best original theatrical compositions, though this might mean more if his others hadn't been for Aida and Lestat.

If the actors have an uphill climb, they surpass it better than many so-burdened companies in recent memory; the cast is spectacular. Jbara expertly coats Billy's father with a gruffness that he chips away at delicately until only untainted pride can be seen beneath. Fontana's active agitator is similarly sharp and driven, his eventual melting likewise very moving. Shelley's Grandma is deliciously dotty, and Gwynne has exactly the juicy, wrong-side-of-the-tracks comic nerves needed for the unsentimental but quietly inspiring Mrs. Wilkinson.

The enormous central role of Billy is sure to make quick stars of David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik, and Kiril Kulish, who rotate in it. At the final press preview, Kulish showed himself as a sinewy and assertive dancer especially in tune with the hottest corners of Billy's rage, an acceptable actor most at home in the quietest scenes (and possessing excellent chemistry with Gwynne), and an accurate if insecure singer. But where it counts - particularly in "Electricity," in which he expurgated Billy's countless complex feelings in waves of fiery force - he delivered everything the role, and the show, required.

Kulish, at least, proved an enlivening embodiment of the show's dictum that when you're dancing, nothing else matters. For any young man forced to carry such a big show, that's sufficient. For Daldry, Hall, and John, though, it isn't - and it should not be. But because it is, no matter how good the Billy Elliot is, Billy Elliot will never quite be good enough.

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