Saturday, November 15, 2008

Gold Mine

Billy Elliott
Music by Elton John
Lyrics and book by Lee Hall
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Starring David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik, Kiril Kulish, Haydn Gwynne, Gregory Jbara, Carole Shelley, Santino Fontana, David Bologna, Frank Dolce, Stephen Hanna, Joel Hatch, Leah Hocking, Thommie Retter, Erin Whyland

Performances from October 1, 2008

Imperial Theatre
249 West 45th Street

Kulish with ballet girls
in Billy Elliott
(photo: David Scheinmann)
Based on the 2000 film about a young boy in a Northern England coal mining town who wants to become a ballet dancer–against the wishes of his embarrassed widowed father and older brother, both on strike in the infamous 1984 showdown with Margaret Thatcher’s anti-union government–Billy Elliott the musical succeeds thrillingly by juxtaposing Billy’s unlikely dream with his blackened, grimy reality.

When it was originally produced in London in 2005 (where it’s still going strong), there were doubts whether Billy Elliott’s entrenched Britishness would translate to Broadway, since we’re two decades and an ocean away from Thatcherism’s devastation of ordinary people. But no one need have worried. Billy Elliott earns both tears and cheers the old-fashioned way: through sheer hard work and breathtaking artistry.

Lee Hall’s book has cleaned the movie of its clutter–at least as best as I remember–streamlining Billy’s now more resonant story, especially in the powerful scenes contrasting Billy practicing alongside a gaggle of giggly girls at Mrs. Wilkinson’s hilariously provincial dance school with the strike’s brutality, as men out of work fight scabs crossing the picket line and armed police are called in. Stephen Daldry’s endlessly inventive direction consolidates this precarious balancing act: the many spotlight dances–which run the gamut from tap, jig and contemporary to classical ballet, all brilliantly choreographed by Peter Darling–work on two levels, as showstopping numbers and narrative. Dancing is an extension of Billy’s personality; this bereft town’s citizens are also compellingly drawn through their exacting movements.

Elton John’s songs (to lyrics by book writer Hall) are, by turns, rousing and placidly emotive. The full company belts out the show’s opener, “The Stars Look Down,” along with “Solidarity” and the stunning second-act curtain raiser, “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher,” with all the uncorked anger of downtrodden working families losing their very livelihood. The gentler songs–Billy’s grandmother’s lament, “We’d Go Dancing,” and Dad’s sorrowful “Deep into the Ground”–are grounded in English music like singalong shanties and folk tunes, giving John’s intoxicating melodies a depth not found in his earlier Broadway scores.

As in London, Billy is performed at different shows by a trio of superlative young performers; I saw the extraordinary Kiril Kulish, an amazingly agile singer, actor and especially dancer. Kulish makes Billy’s metamorphosis from dreamer to artist exhilarating and inevitable–by all reports, David Alvarez and Trent Kowalik do equally well as Billy, so don’t worry about who is performing the athletic, acrobatic feats during such numbers as “Angry Dance” and “Electricity.”

The only holdover from the original cast, Hadyn Gwynne, is lovably hard-nosed as Mrs. Wilkinson, the teacher who sets Billy on his escape path from this coal mining town; Gregory Jbara plays Billy’s dad as a winning combination of gruffness and paternal pride, and Santino Fontana plays older brother Tony with a sensitivity that strengthens his hardened exterior. In the too-brief role of Billy’s mum, Leah Hocking brings reservoirs of emotion to the forefront. And as cross-dressing friend Michael, David Bologna (alternating with Frank Dolce) is an unalloyed delight in his own arresting duet with Billy, “Expressing Yourself.”

Even though the second act bogs down a bit before rousing itself for a wonderfully understated finale, for once the hype is more than mere hype: the exhilarating Billy Elliott is an unapologetic crowd-pleaser.

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