“Billy Elliot” is a big show, but its most essential element remains its most diminutive. The young actor playing the 11-year-old title character has, pardon the pun, a tall order: to lift this emotional, stirring musical on his shoulders, carry the audience beyond the working-class English setting amid a mining strike and transport us with dancing so startling, so magnificent, that his talent demands attention even by characters in the midst of crisis. Based on the mind-bogglingly, thrillingly good Billy who opened this first touring production, which plans to stay in Chicago for an indefinite period, “Billy Elliot” will be delivering warm-hearted uplift at least until puberty hits.
Cesar Corrales, a 13-year-old of Cuban descent, is one of four Billys who’ll take the stage in Chi, and it’s perhaps unfair to focus just on him. But how could you do otherwise, as on opening night — with Sir Elton and Queen Oprah in attendance — he pirhouetted and arabesqued and tap-danced his way into our hearts. (Did I really just write that cliche that I simply can’t find an alternative for?)
Corrales gets plenty of support in this well-cast and finely tuned production, directed by Stephen Daldry and choreographed by Peter Darling, both reprising their roles from the original film and the West End and Broadway incarnations. And the score, from Elton John and Lee Hall, may not have especially memorable individual songs in it, but impressively serves the story throughout, setting the underlying tone of righteous, optimistic anger as the strike begins, to more desperation as hope for a positive resolution diminishes. While there was some controversy regarding the size of the orchestra, the music sounds plenty lush.
The supporting players are all excellent. Billy watches his father (Armand Schultz) and his brother (Patrick Mulvey) begin to fight as the mining strike goes on, and his doddering if lovable grandmother (Cynthia Darlow) can’t even begin to broker a peace. That would have been the role of Billy’s late mother, who makes a few appearances (played by Susie McMonagle) to encourage Billy to stay true to himself even if he’s different from those around him. The family’s journey from stunned denial of Billy’s interest in ballet to encouragement comes across with just the right swell of emotion, carefully staying on the right side of sentimentality.
And as Billy’s dance teacher, Emily Skinner finds that ideal combination of enthusiasm coated with manifest cynicism that makes her relationship with Billy believable and moving.
From a design perspective, this show doesn’t present a particularly huge challenge to tour. Daldry and his design collaborators have incorporated so much theatricality into the world — the way chairs are moved around to signal different locations, the tensions between the striking miners and the riot police introduced via a clever dance number — that spectacle is created more by creativity than hydraulics.