Billy Elliot the Musical
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 24, 2008
Billy Elliot The Musical feels like a big Broadway hit—on the order, perhaps, of Jersey Boys and Mamma Mia! String together words and phrases like "feel-good musical," "crowd-pleaser," and "heart-warming" and you know most of what you need to about this cannily crafted show.
It's based on a film that I've not seen, so the story was new to me. The Elliots live in the North of England: Dad is a coal miner; Tony, also a miner, is the elder son; Billy, the younger, is 11. Grandma also lives with them; she's a bit addled. Dad is a widower. The play happens during the miners' strike of 1984; the backdrop to the story is of Billy's village being torn asunder by events beyond their control.
Billy is, as far as we can tell, an ordinary kid—until he accidentally stumbles upon Mrs. Wilkinson's ballet class. He's there to give her a set of keys, but she treats him as just another of her students (though all the rest of the students are little girls). She challenges him to return for another lesson, and he does...and when he does, it becomes clear quickly that he has found his vocation. Billy has talent, and he loves dancing. Mrs. Wilkinson takes him under her wing, giving him private lessons so that he might audition for the Royal Ballet. When Billy's Dad finds out, he is furious, and it looks like Billy's dreams will be thwarted. But Dad changes his mind, and soon the whole village is rooting for Billy to ace his audition in London.
Will Billy make it into the ballet and—not so incidentally—out of his stifling village? You probably already know, but if you don't, I'm certainly not going to tell you now. I will tell you that the miners lose their strike (that's in the historical record, as well as in a program note); so the ending is bittersweet at best, as Dad and Tony and their comrades face severe uncertainty in their lives as the curtain falls.
It's a strong story, though not a particularly deep one. We never really find out what has drawn Billy to dance, or why his Dad decides to relent and let him audition. Mrs. Wilkinson, portrayed stylishly and vigorously by Haydn Gwynne in the show's strongest performance, is the most interesting and well-defined character in the tale, but she disappears for most of Act Two, which is a shame.
What works in this show, though, is the ballet. The sequences set in Mrs. Wilkinson's studio are delightful (they feature a corps of little girls who are deliberately dancing poorly, and they're charming). The sequences where Billy learns to dance under the tutelage of Mrs. Wilkinson and her accompanist Mr. Braithwaite are gorgeous. And the sequence where Billy imagines himself a grown-up ballet dancer (Older Billy is performed by New York City Ballet principal dancer Stephen Hanna) is the highlight, despite the fact that unnecessary stage fog obscures some of it, and despite the fact that it doesn't actually make much sense for a boy to dream of being partnered by his older self.
The contemporary choreography—all of the dances are by Peter Darling—is more scattershot; Darling doesn't seem to have a handle on how to match movements to Billy's body or to his personality. The score, by Elton John with lyrics by bookwriter/original screenwriter Lee Hall, is nondescript in the book songs (which are actually relatively few in number; this is a book-heavy musical with lots of dancing but not much singing). Steven Daldry's direction gets the job done efficiently.
Talented cast members Gregory Jbara (Dad), Santino Fontana (Tony), Carole Shelley (Grandma), and Leah Hocking (the ghost of Billy's Mum) have little to do. But Thommie Retter, as Braithwaite, turns out to be a powerhouse of dancing and performing talent.
The focus is squarely on Billy, who is played by three different young actors. I saw Kiril Kulish, who is sensationally good. It's a lot to ask a youngster barely in his teens to carry a Broadway musical on his shoulders, but Kulish pretty much manages to do so (and I suspect his co-Billys are equally capable).
There are three things about Billy Elliot The Musical that turned me off. One is the squirm-inducing subplot involving Billy's presumably gay friend Michael; they perform a number in drag called "Expressing Yourself" that felt quite tasteless to me. The second is Ian McNeil's set design, which raised more questions for me than it answered, such as why the lavatories at Mrs. Wilkinson's school have to be pushed off stage by actors when every other scenic element seems to move about magically on its own power.
The last of my pet peeves is the "Company Celebration" that ends the show, which follows the story's proper ending and adds levels of kitschy razzmatazz that have heretofore been absent from the proceedings and, to my mind, should have remained absent. If the story that Hall and John want to tell ends on a melancholy but uplifting note, so be it; it shouldn't be necessary to negate the conclusion with a big happy dopey finale.
But...the audience certainly seemed to enjoy all the excesses of the show, finale included. Who am I to grouse? Billy Elliot The Musical is likely to be with us for a long time—probably so long that this trio of original Billys may be able to come back as Older Billys before the run is over.