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December 20, 2012

'Billy Elliot: The Musical' a welcome holiday visitor at the Hippodrome

It’s a particularly appropriate time to see “Billy Elliot: The Musical,” which has leaped into the Hippodrome for a welcome holiday visit. And I'm not just talking about the Christmas scene in Act 2.

Although the principal story in this Tony Award-winning show — a young boy’s unexpected journey into the world of ballet — remains front-and-center, equally compelling plot lines about unions and working-class solidarity jump out with an extra kick right now.

From the opening minutes of “Billy Elliot,” the audience is plunged into the tensions in an English mining town in 1984, when a strike is called to protest moves by Margaret Thatcher’s government against the coal industry.

That tension, which generates some of the most visceral music in Elton John’s score, seems uncomfortably relevant, given the emotional battles just fought in Michigan over legislation targeting unions. And when, by the musical’s close, the defeated strikers sense the extent of their loss, Baltimoreans may well find themselves thinking about the depressing saga of Sparrows Point.

The ability to touch multiple nerves is ...

what made the original “Billy Elliot,” a 2000 film by Lee Hall and Stephen Daldry, such an international hit. And it’s what gives such a potent spark to the musical version they fashioned a few years later.

Not everything works. Billy and his cross-dressing buddy, Michael, end up doing a tacky fantasy number better saved for a revival of “La Cage aux Folles.” After the subtle, affecting final scene, we get a tap-dancing routine for the whole ensemble that feels tacked on solely for applause-milking.

And while the creators clearly worked hard to catch the authentic flavor of the workers and their families, they couldn’t resist severe caricatures for cops and one-percenters.

But the hits greatly outnumber the misses in this opera-length musical, which finds heart, humor and a whole lot of life lessons in the tale of kid who stumbles into a dance class and is gradually, unalterably transformed.

Four performers are alternating in the role of Billy during the Baltimore run. One of them is Noah Parets.

He may be a little stiff as a dancer, but he has disarming energy. More importantly, he is an assured, persuasive actor. He nails the linguistic challenge (the Geordie accent of northern England) and conveys Billy’s internal conflicts tellingly.

Rich Hebert gives a rich portrayal of Billy’s coarse-edged father; his grainy, poignant account of “Deep into the Ground” is a highlight. Cullen R. Titmas is very effective as Billy’s volatile brother. Patti Perkins shines as salty Grandma.

Janet Dickinson does terrific work as Mrs. Wilkinson, the chain-smoking, foul-mouthed dance teacher. Jake Kitchin doesn’t reveal all the layers beneath the boundary-pushing Michael (another shared role), but he proves to be quite the charmer nonetheless.

Other standouts in the large cast include Joel Blum as the boxing coach who has a wee problem with phraseology and Patrick Wetzel as the dance school pianist and surprise dancer.

The production, originally directed by Daldry, flows with cinematic fluidity through Ian MacNeil’s atmospheric set.

Several scenes still startle — the mash-up of a ballet class and a miners-police clash, for example; the frantic holiday party that opens Act 2 with the wicked song “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher”; the miners, with the lamps on their helmets piercing the theater, as they head back to work.

There are times when the score finds John straining to pump up the drama. But most of the songs (Hall was the lyricist) do their job solidly, nowhere more so than in “Electricity,” when Billy tries to explain what it feels like to dance, to break free of the troubled world around him — and, at least in spirit, has the audience spinning right along with him.

"Billy Elliot runs through Dec. 30 at the Hippodrome.

PHOTOS BY KYLE FROMAN (miners) AND DOUG BLEMKER (dancers)

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:26 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Drama Queens, Hippodrome
        

Comments

I saw the same performance on Tuesday night and found it, on the whole, enjoyable. The biggest problem for me was a positive in the review - that Noah Parets "nails the linguistic challenge (the Geordie accent of northern England)" made much of his dialogue difficult to understand. This occurred with a few other actors as well. I know I am not alone in this dilemma, as several folks around me were commenting on this difficulty (at least they weren't talking on cell phones). I wonder if the authenticity of the accent isn't being prioritized over being understood. The performers obviously gave their all in a thoroughly energetic and tuneful show, though I must admit I left without any of those tunes playing in my head. I noticed several groups with children in the audience and can only imagine the parents did not realize the amount of coarse language in the show, from both the adult actors as well as the children. It didn't bother me, but some parents may want to be cautioned.

Good review, but the Tim Smith missed a few important points. The show is so dark and depressing that the relief of the musical number "Expressing Yourself" and the "Company Celebration" at the end is necessary not just to inspire the audience, but entertain. The musical numbers were all perfect for the story line, and were never intended to overwhelm the plot. The show won so many awards because it does not have a weak side. Go see it. It's the best!

Tim, we also saw Noah Parets perform when we saw the show. I couldn't catch every word, but I got the gist of it. "Billy Elliot" (the original movie) is one of my all-time favorites. This show doesn't match its power, but it's worth seeing on its own terms. There were many children in the audience, and they seemed to be thoroughly engrossed.

I don't think there was a dry eye in the house when young Billy danced (and soared) with his future grown-up self.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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