The West End has a sizable homegrown hit in “Billy Elliot — The Musical.” Far more aggressive than the 2000 movie, at once angrier and considerably more shameless, too, the stage show expands on the celluloid version without in any way deepening it, yet delivers a genuine emotional wallop near the end. As 11-year-old Billy (Liam Mower), the miner’s son who decides to pursue a career in ballet, strides up the center aisle of the Victoria Palace on his way to a new, more hopeful life, only the most hardened heart won’t be taking that journey with him.
We will never walk alone, in other words (an early lyric asserts precisely that), to cite just one of the numerous time-honored sentiments worked over in the show, which stands apart from most film-to-stage transcriptions in retaining key personnel from the movie (starting with Oscar-nommed director Stephen Daldry and writer Lee Hall). The most obvious addition to “Billy’s” theatrical brew — the Elton John score, with lyrics by Hall — is also its weakest link. But that won’t matter a bit next to the lasting power of this material to stir an audience to the core.
It’s because “Billy Elliot” works on so primal a level that one wishes this musical’s creators had worked somewhat harder to smooth out the uneasy mixture of rabid political invective and in-your-face sentimentality that marks this stage incarnation. Even the sweetest of tales is allowed an irony that in “Billy Elliot” goes missing. Likewise the innocence that made the movie a true discovery and not just a “Blood Brothers” for the 21st century, the stage “Billy” carried aloft on a similar populist appeal that some adroit stagecraft here lifts just beyond the realm of agitprop and pulp.
More belligerently than the film, Hall’s theatrical script places its young hero (the character’s precise age varies depending on which of the three Billys is performing on a given night) against the ferocious backdrop of the 1984 miners’ strike. That agitation ripped through Britain and made folk heroes out of that sector of the working class while prompting the anti-Thatcher broadsides that permeate the bizarrely staged (What’s with the Julie Taymor-style puppets?) and dubiously timed second-act opener, “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher.”
The aim, presumably, was for a mass-audience protest musical in the all-but-forgotten tradition of Joan Littlewood, tethered at the same time to a fantasia — an elaborate “Swan Lake” sequence for Billy and his adult self doesn’t need the help of visible wires to take wing. All this ups the ante on its young lead by demanding a stage Billy who can not only act and dance but also sing. (In the movie, Jamie Bell careers through the streets to a pulsing period-pop score that makes John’s contribution seem doubly pallid.)
Scarcely have we entered the Elliot household — a grim, low-lying space in Ian MacNeil’s design, from which Billy’s bedroom aerie rises as if in accordance with the boy’s desire for flight — before Billy is singing of the “new tomorrow.” He finds exactly that with Mrs. Wilkinson (Haydn Gwynne, in the Julie Walters role), a dance teacher with better taste in burgeoning Nureyevs than in clothes, if Nicky Gillibrand’s garish outfits are any gauge.
Busily urging her recruits to “shine,” Mrs. Wilkinson finds a funkier equivalent of the same sensibility in Billy’s chum, Michael (Ryan Longbottom), a round-faced lad with an overt fetish for dresses, which, in one of choreographer Peter Darling’s more questionable stage innovations, themselves come to life. (Mrs. Wilkinson, meanwhile, sings of a “Chicago”-esque penchant for “the old razzle dazzle,” with fan dance to match: Not even “Billy Elliot” is beyond the intratextual pastiching currently pervading new musicals.)
Elsewhere, the musical amplifies the dancing well beyond the film, with the 12-year-old Mower, a student at the Royal Ballet’s White Lodge school, in likably firm command of every terpsichorean feat.
It seems a particular waste, then, to harness a youthful lead’s boundless energy to such musical tripe as “Born to Boogie,” late in act one. This is quickly followed by a surreal sequence in which Billy dizzyingly weaves his way among a row of riot shields, his disorientation suggesting a barely pubescent dream tipped uneasily into nightmare. For all its choric pretensions, the music is banal at best (and stridently orchestrated), lazy and maudlin at worst, with not one but two numbers between Billy and his dead mum (Stephanie Putson) to get the tears flowing.
The exception is a searching ballad, “Electricity,” which makes good on its title while marking the high point of a staging that begins with the image of a young boy (not Billy) watching newsreel footage. The image jerks one alive to the wonder that washes over the audience anew as Billy, summoned to London for his Royal Ballet School audition, responds to the panel’s questions about dance.
“I can’t really explain it/I haven’t got the words,” he says, his quest for freedom cruelly echoed by the political promise of “emancipation” flown on the banners up north that are part of the landscape Billy must leave behind.
As he makes his escape off the stage and into the auditorium, a grand-standing musical turns suddenly to triumph in the hands of an emblematic character whose thirst for art seems inseparable from life.