'Billy Elliot the Musical' bounds into the Kennedy Center
When Billy Elliot, a pre-teen from a poor mining town, sets his feet in motion, he says it feels “a bit like being angry, a bit like being scared.” And a lot like flying.
If he had to describe the sensation in a single word, it would be “electricity.”
The current running through the national touring production of “Billy Elliot the Musical” now at the Kennedy Center may not be of the highest possible voltage, but it still generates a warming dose of feel-good entertainment.
And when Billy jumps into a dance at full-throttle, or, in a particularly memorable sequence, adds some aerial work for good measure, the show exudes an infectious exhilaration, pumped up in key spots by Elton John’s more or less effective score.
You cannot help but root for Billy, whose dancing gives him the best shot of getting away from a suffocatingly small town.
The kid deals with one setback — and well-traveled plot path — after another, including a gruff father who doesn’t want his boy doing something so girly (Billy to his Dad: “You’re supposed to encourage me.”)
But there’s never any doubt that things will turn out OK, that hope and gritty effort will be rewarded.
If the ending ...
is not a surprise, the story leading up to it has considerable freshness. That’s one reason the movie “Billy Elliot,” which inspired the musical, enjoyed success in 2000.
Set amid the devastating mine workers’ strike of 1984 in northern England during the reign of Margaret Thatcher, the film crammed a lot of atmosphere, politics, and issues of social class and sexual identity, not to mention all that dancing, into a pretty compelling 90 minutes.
The stage version, which opened in London in 2005 and reached Broadway three years later (the New York run will end early next month), achieves a kind of cinematic momentum, thanks to Ian MacNeil’s smoothly gliding set.
But the musical, adapted by the film’s screenwriter Lee Hall (he also wrote the lyrics), takes nearly twice as long as the movie and yet, somehow, doesn’t feel as complete or as affecting.
It might have been better to narrow things down, rather than trying to cram it all in (the business of Billy communicating with his dead mother could be safely jettisoned, for a start).
Still, there is much here to pull you in, especially these days. “Billy Elliot the Musical” seems extra-relevant, what with vestiges of the Occupy movement still resonating, and with some politicians still equating unions with a diabolical evil that must be quashed.
Some of the show’s most impressive scenes, musically and theatrically, involve the miners. In a particularly potent example of Peter Darling’s imaginative choreography, a clash between those miners and the police is intricately interwoven with a scene of Billy’s dance class. Talk about two worlds colliding.
Even Thatcherism is back in the news, with the Conservatives back in power in Parliament and Meryl Streep portraying the Iron lady on the big screen. (One of the catchiest songs in the score, "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher," is probably more chart-ready than when the musical was new.)
The subsidiary theme in the musical about discovering and embracing sexual orientation at an early age also strikes doubly strong chords now. The show doesn’t go very deep exploring this, but there’s still something quite powerful in the chaste little kiss that occurs in each act.
For those who do not want to be bothered with weighty matters in the midst of an otherwise reassuringly old-fashioned musical, not to worry. It is easy to focus on the fun stuff. And, directed fluently by Stephen Daldry, the production is always entertaining.
Aside from some raw language (occasionally from the kids), it’s really a family show at heart, a reaffirmation of how filial and sibling ties can withstand many a breach. And how the creative impulse can overcome all obstacles, or at least put up a good fight.
The title role is exceptionally demanding for young actors. Three of them alternated in the assignment during the original Broadway production and made history by sharing the Tony Award for leading actor in a musical. In the current tour, no less than five performers are taking turns as Billy.
Lex Ishimoto had the spotlight the night I attended. He is more engaging as a dancer than as an actor, though he can get the main points of the drama across, and he tries hard to keep the distinctive regional accent going.
As Billy’s conflicted father, who must risk his own integrity to support his son’s, Rich Hebert gives a solid, colorful, ultimately sympathetic performance. He sings “Deep Into the Ground,” Elton John’s remarkable evocation of a folk song, with considerable eloquence.
Leah Hocking likewise shines as Mrs. Wilkinson, the dance teacher who spots the potential in Billy and has quite a job unleashing it. Hocking conveys the character’s tender side as tellingly as the snarky.
Cynthia Darlow fleshes out the role of feisty Grandma delectably and does a fine job with the “We’d Go Dancing,” one of the most disarming songs in the score, with its bittersweet kicker, “But in the morning we were sober.”
Patrick Wetzel jumps wholeheartedly and amusingly into the supporting role of Mr. Braithwaite, the dance class piano player.
Two actors alternate as Billy’s buddy Michael, the boy with a thing for feminine apparel. If you see Ben Cook in the role, as I did, you may well find yourself wishing that this potential show-stealer was playing Billy, since he has such stage presence and flair. Just the way Cook asks “Do you get to wear a tutu?” is awfully funny. A dynamic dancer, too.
The rest of the well-drilled ensemble delivers, as does the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.
If the score isn’t chock full of memorable tunes, it is fun to hear Elton John stretching in several directions. He often captures the sense of resentment, angst and courage swirling through the story.
That said, the biggest musical impact comes not from the songwriter, but from Tchaikovsky when young Billy and a projection of his older self dance to a surging segment of “Swan Lake.” That scene drives home the whole point of the show, letting everyone experience the great calling the kid has and the great art form he may well contribute meaningfully to, if all goes well.
It’s a pity that the show doesn’t keep that goal more tightly in focus. When the final, curtain-call-incorporating dance sequence arrives, it’s all about pop rhythm and mass appeal. It’s as if, after all that tough effort of getting into the Royal Ballet School, Billy’s real goal is to end up in something like, well, a Broadway musical.
Photos by Kyle Froman