Theatre Is Easy: “Billy Elliot: The Musical”

Written by Theatre Is Easy

BOTTOM LINE: A spectacular dance show but an unnecessarily embellished Broadway extravaganza.

Billy Elliot: The Musical opened on Broadway last November, so this post is certainly tardy, but it took me a while to see the show because tickets are hard to come by. Billy solidified itself as the hot new musical well before it opened here in the States, after playing a triumphant three years in London, where it continues its successful run. The American incarnation is just as much a smash as the British version; it’s a consistent draw, and the average ticket price is more than almost any other Broadway production, according to Playbill.com. Critics are smitten too: the New York Post called it “the best show you will ever see.”

Based on the 2000 movie directed by Stephen Daldry (The Hours, The Reader), the musical utilizes the same creative team as the film and subsequently maintains much of the story’s original integrity. Directed by Daldry, with book and lyrics written by Lee Hall, the musical is a beautifully realized interpretation of the tale of a British tween in a poor mining town. He’s wistful and naive but down-to-earth. (Kids in dire straits are forced to grow up a little faster.) Billy’s mom recently died, and his dad doesn’t have the time or energy to be a nurturing parent in the wake of the miners’ strike affecting everyone in town. One day Billy stumbles upon a dance class being taught in the building where he takes boxing lessons; he’s smitten and feels a burning desire to join in. Much to the embarrassment of his family — and even himself at first — he discovers the dancer inside and begins to pursue his dream. Billy Elliot, the movie, is fantastic and totally worth seeing if you can’t check out the stage version, but if you do plan to see the musical, make sure you see the movie first — I’m not sure the narrative translates with the same clarity in musical form.

There are many things I loved about Billy Elliot: The Musical, namely the dancing and choreography. The story revolves around the utter joy that comes from expressing yourself through movement, and that glee radiates through the theater. The message is “Be inspired” (at least that’s what the T-shirts in the lobby say), and as you watch Billy learn and develop his art, it’s hard to be anything but energized.

The choreography by Peter Darling inhabits these characters and defines their struggles. Billy’s “angry dance,” when he lets out his aggression near the end of the first act, is one of the best-constructed pieces of choreography I’ve seen in a while; the fluidity of his movement and the intensity of this point in the story fuse together in an expression that can’t be ignored by the audience. Billy’s release is shared with everyone around him. It’s cathartic and beautiful. Another fantastic moment occurs when Billy shares a pas de deux with “older Billy” (Stephen Hanna), essentially the vision of what he’ll become when he’s a professional dancer with the Royal Ballet. The gentle choreography illuminates his character, making him even more real. (At the performance I saw, Billy was played by Trent Kowalik, whose performance was irresistible.)

It’s in that heightened reality that Billy Elliot hits the nail on the head: a disheartened community in troubling times is a subject all too common in 2009. But like many big-budget Broadway musicals these days, Billy Elliot utilizes schmammy effects and larger-than-life interpretations to make sure the audience gets its money’s worth. This isn’t always the best way to tell a story, even when tickets cost a pretty penny. A charming scene in which Billy seeks the advice of his best friend, Michael (the adorable Frank Dolce), becomes absurd when out of their playful fantasy emerge 15-foot-tall dancing dresses. And the young dancers in Billy’s class are over-the-top goofy as they fake bad technique with broad, spastic movements (the young ensemble is adorable, just misguided, in my opinion); this wouldn’t make anyone want to take a dance class, let alone a boy who was previously unaware of the activity. It’s in these choices that an otherwise honest story becomes superfluous.

Because of the unrealistic Broadway glitz and an unexciting, forgettable score by Elton John, Billy Elliot: The Musical didn’t fully grab me the way it did almost every other reviewer in town. As a showcase for dance it’s remarkable, and I highly recommend it for anyone who’s ever had a passion for dancing. Actually, I recommend it as well for people who enjoyed the movie and want to see the story told in another format. It’s a well-executed production in many ways but primarily when it sticks to the gritty reality of its accessible and endearing characters.

Billy Elliot plays at the Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St. Performances are Tue 7 PM, Wed-Sat 8 PM (also Wed and Sat 2 PM), and Sun 3 PM. The show runs 2 hrs. 45 min., with one intermission. Tickets are $41.50-$126.50; a limited number of student tickets are available for $40 at the box office two hours before the performance. For show info, visit billyelliotbroadway.com, and for more New York theatre info, visit theatreiseasy.com.