For its international debut in Sydney ahead of a Broadway bow in fall 2008, London hit “Billy Elliot the Musical” has undergone a slight but significant makeover, with softer Thatcher themes, lighter Geordie accents and cranked-up joie de vivre. For Aussie auds this tuner will recall local Tap Dog Dein Perry’s semi-biopic “Bootmen” in its portrayal of an artistic tyke struggling for acceptance in a grim working class town. That said, Stephen Daldry’s “Billy” is an infinitely more affecting package, wrapped up with an extended, all-singing, all-dancing showcase finale.
Judging by the opening-night enthusiasm, “Billy Elliot” will enjoy a strong following in Oz, despite a national market awash with big musicals right now. “Monty Python’s Spamalot” has just opened in Melbourne, where “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” is also playing. “Miss Saigon,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Rocky Horror Show” are touring nationally, and “Wicked” opens next year.
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Despite the competition it makes sense that this West End hit should arrive in Oz in advance of Broadway given the political parallels between the U.K. and former colonial outpost Australia.
Among changes made since London are the inclusion of a striking shadow-dancing scene, occasionally glitzier staging, a softening of the political diatribes, a cranked-up angry dance and dismissal of the onstage judging panel at Billy’s Royal Ballet School audition.
However, these tweaks are hardly noticeable as the tuner manages to maintain its anti-Tory heat while being thoroughly comprehensible to Aussie auds.
The tale is now familiar: Miner’s son Billy swaps boxing for ballet in a Durham county village fraught with tension over the 1984 miners’ strike that split the country between the working class and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party revolutionaries.
This narrative template of an artist breaking through convention is hardly new to either film or musical theater, yet “Billy Elliot” connects with audiences through its empathetic portrayal of very nonshowbiz working class types, and by showcasing some very talented juniors. There’s something quite magical about following the journey of a young teen through this kind of uplifting show.
Beyond Daldry’s very theatrical staging, Lee Hall’s expressive book and Elton John’s erratic yet ultimately endearing music, the show will always stand — or pirouette — on the competency of its young leads, who supply much of the vitality.
One of five current Sydney alternates in the title role, Rhys Kosakowski is a knockout — a particularly joyful and technically proficient dancer. The troupe of ballerinas are an exuberant bunch, and, like Kosakowski, they blossom in form and enthusiasm through the show.
As Billy’s mischievous, occasionally cross-dressing pal, Michael, Landen Hale-Brown milks his role for all it’s worth, much to the audience’s delight. And the impact of the profanities spouting from the mouths of these babes was never likely to offend Oz sensibilities.
The older cast members are likeable but never likely to steal the show from the kids. Genevieve Lemon’s Mrs. Wilkinson is a comic delight, although her moves are less than might be expected of a dance teacher. Richard Piper is underused as Billy’s Dad. Ultimately, however, the ensemble is strong, with no weak links.
John’s music is not as catchy as his score for “The Lion King,” but he manages to make far more out of the normally dour protest-song genre and his big number, “Electricity,” is, well, electric.