Three-and-a-half years may seem a long time for an instantaneous London smash like “Billy Elliot: The Musical” to cross the Atlantic, but the delay looks to have played serendipitously into the producers’ hands. With unemployment figures soaring and the economy in the dumps, the zeitgeist could hardly be more attuned to the stirring story of a Northern England miner’s son liberated from bleak reality by his passion for ballet. But even without that happy accident of timing, American audiences would have no trouble connecting with the universal sentiment of this bittersweet dual celebration of community and individuality.
High among the strengths of this big-hearted show is the success of director Stephen Daldry and writer-lyricist Lee Hall in infusing the story with gritty cultural specificity and an angry liberal political agenda while at the same time rendering it emotionally accessible to audiences regardless of their background or politics. Who would have guessed that a musical in which conservative economic policies deal a death blow to the working class could be such an uplifting experience?
Hall and Daldry respectively wrote and directed the 2000 film, and they stick closely to that outline. But they also take savvy advantage of the ways in which the musical form can reach beyond real-life dimensions by allowing each character’s defiant inner voice to ring out in vivid self-expression, and by consistently blurring the line between hardscrabble reality and joyful, freeing fantasy.
The latter dichotomy is particularly evident in Ian MacNeil’s ingenious set. The shabby walls and grimy windows of the small-town community hall or the Elliot household frequently glide away to leave the infinite possibilities of a vast empty stage, with Rick Fisher’s moody lighting suddenly pierced by the magical heat of the spotlight. And Billy’s attic bedroom, elevated on a revolving central tower, serves as both a visual metaphor for his airborne desires and a cage when the path of his flight is obstructed.
That dream of escape takes shape when 11-year-old Billy (David Alvarez at the performance reviewed, alternating with two other actors) stumbles into a dance class run by chain-smoking, terminally bored Mrs. Wilkinson (Haydn Gwynne). Roused by the raw potential behind the kid’s unrefined moves, the teacher plants the idea in Billy of auditioning for the Royal Ballet School. But the ambitions of both mentor and protege are momentarily scuttled when Billy’s widowed Dad (Gregory Jbara) and older brother Tony (Santino Fontana) step in to veto his pursuit of such an unmanly goal.
The basic plot skeleton of an underdog rescued from adversity by the purity of his artistic pursuit is a familiar one, but it’s given integrity here by the rich, melancholy textures of Hall’s cultural and political backdrop.
The story takes place in 1984 against the bitter, yearlong British National Union of Mineworkers strike that resulted from Margaret Thatcher’s bid to close the pits. That grounds the resistance of Billy’s father and brother — both striking miners struggling to feed the family — not just in macho objections but in the pathos of real burdens and fears. And when they do come around and help nurture Billy’s dream, their support carries the poignant realization that there’s nothing to keep him where he is; their way of life is threatened and their town is dying.
The simultaneous surge of elation and sorrow that characterizes the show is nowhere more effective than in the wrenching image of the defeated miners descending into the ground, their pit helmets throwing blinding beams of light into the audience, as Billy ascends to a more hopeful future. The musical’s sentiments are big and unabashed but rooted deep in the drama and never crude.
Billy’s transformative passion is also deftly fueled by other characters. These include his dotty Grandma (played with a lovely faded twinkle by Carole Shelley), singing wistfully in “We’d Go Dancing” of the drunken, abusive husband who turned into Fred Astaire on the dance floor; Gwynne’s sweetly sour Mrs. Wilkinson, aware she’s a second-rate teacher yet not too jaded to further someone else’s chance to be exceptional; and Billy’s friend Michael (delightful scene-stealer Frank Dolce), a budding gay boy with an unapologetic penchant for cross-dressing. The unembarrassed handling of this character and his tender relationship with straight Billy is one of the show’s many beguiling pleasures.
Elton John’s songs are more often serviceable than memorable, and the ballads are treacle, but there’s a nice, brass-heavy Brit sound to the orchestrations that adds to the show’s strong sense of place. Regardless of their quality as showtunes, almost all the significant numbers are elevated by Daldry’s propulsive staging into buoyant setpieces.
The creative team is especially adept at weaving multipart narratives into a single number. The opener, “The Stars Look Down,” goes straight for the heart with its solemn anthem of troubled workers vowing to stand together, while near the end of the show, the same workers’ shattered hopes and unbreakable dignity pulse through the equally powerful “Once We Were Kings.”
Daldry’s resourcefulness, and the wit of Peter Darling’s appropriately rough-edged choreography, are best showcased in “Solidarity,” in which miners, cops and Mrs. W.’s motley ballet class all overlap to depict a community in chaos. (Shifting between clumsy pirouettes and razzle-dazzle tap, the ballet girls are a riot.)
The single superb holdover from the London cast, Lycra-clad Gwynne gets to push the show’s mandate in the amusing “Shine,” complete with a “Chicago”-style fan dance. But she also gets lumbered with a dud in “Born to Boogie,” an ill-fitting song wedged in out of nowhere simply because it was time for an uptempo comic number.
While the song’s imperative furthers the central theme, the overblown whimsy of Michael’s “Expressing Yourself,” with giant dresses on coat hangers cavorting around the stage, also sits a little oddly. But there’s such good-humored rambunctiousness in the number that it’s easy to overlook any flaws.
Right down to the smallest bit part, the frazzled warmth of the performances is contagious, while Jbara and Fontana strike a moving balance between their characters’ conflicted feelings and their unquestionable love for Billy.
But it’s Billy himself who transports the audience and carries the show aloft. Alvarez’s vocals may not be the smoothest, but he’s an intense, brooding little actor who can put across a song with conviction. In the “Angry Dance” that closes act one on a dramatic high, Darling’s convulsive moves seem to burst spontaneously from the performer’s nimble body, slamming himself against a wall of cops’ Plexiglas riot shields in one of the production’s more arresting images.
He also gets the standout song, the show-stopping “Electricity.” True to its title, that number and its extended dance interlude send a visceral charge through the audience that raises the spirits in the way only a musical can. That “Billy Elliot” is as much an elegy as a celebration is what makes it such a winner.