What’s more important in the musical theater, score or book? “Candide” and “Merrily We Roll Along” are those classic examples of great music being sabotaged by ill-conceived, problematic books. “Billy Elliot” is the reverse; it’s that successful tuner that captivates us with a tale exceptionally well told despite music, by Elton John, that never enhances the action or deepens our commitment to the characters.
Despite the current vogue for tuners with a movie pedigree, “Billy Elliot” is that rare pic (from 2000) where the emotional stakes are high enough to justify characters breaking into song; and the original director, Stephen Daldry, and screenwriter, Lee Hall, have accomplished the transfer to the stage with remarkable skill. This touring production captures what Broadway auds saw, plus it is blessed with a great Billy Elliot, Ty Forhan.
He may not be much a boxer, but this Billy is a real fighter, who eschews lessons in the boxing ring for lessons at the barre in a coal miners’ town in northern England. Worse, his family (Rich Hebert, Patti Perkins, Cullen R. Titmas) has anthracite for brains. When we first see the 11-year-old Billy, Forhan may move too much like someone who has already spent years toning and stretching his limbs into an athletic ideal. Still, he makes the crucial metamorphosis in the middle of act one from semi-klutz to future ballerino. We discover that transformation along with his dancing instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson (Leah Hocking in a beautifully understated performance, that is, when the score doesn’t call on her to bump ‘n’ grind), and it is the show’s emotional high point.
But about that bumping ‘n’ grinding. Why do at least two of Mrs. Wilkinson’s ballet lessons degenerated into disco showstoppers? The Elliots may not be the only ones who are phobic about ballet. If “Expressing Yourself” and “Born to Boogie” were good disco numbers, fine. But they’re generic disco, just as all the ballads, marches and anthems in “Billy Elliot” are generic.
Among such mediocre material, John drops music from “Swan Lake.” Not a wise idea. In “The Phantom of the Opera,” Andrew Lloyd Webber could have thrown in “O Paradis!” from “L’Africaine.” Instead, he wrote a Meyerbeer-esque aria from an opera he titled “Hannibal.” Using “Swan Lake” for Billy’s big fantasy dance with his older self (Maximilien A. Baud) is like Leonard Bernstein using “Shake, Rattle and Roll” instead “Dance at the Gym” in “West Side Story.” John isn’t writing on automatic pilot here; he’s completely left the cockpit.
More ballet phobia: It’s not enough that Forhan and Baud dance beautifully. At the climax of Tchaikovsky’s music, Baud hooks some wires on Forhan and sends him flying through the air. Which is not half as thrilling as watching Forhan execute a series of pirouettes.
Then again, if Billy fails at the Royal Ballet, there’s always Cirque du Soleil.