November 16, 2008

In Total Solidarity with "Billy Elliot"

Standing ovations at the end of a show have become such a given that I usually ignore them. But even I paid attention when people sitting near me and my friend Joy stood up and applauded in the middle of Billy Elliot, the sensational new musical that opened on Thursday at the Imperial Theatre. And they stood up more than once. I didn’t join in until the end but I was just as thrilled as they were. Finally, a show that has good songs, great dancing, an accessible plot, a heartfelt message and a little uplift thrown in.

And it couldn’t have come at a better moment. Billy Elliot is adapted from the 2000 movie of the same title that told t
he story of an 11 year-old miner’s son who discovers that he has an amazing gift for ballet. But what lends the tale extra resonance is that it is set in northern England in 1984, during the year-long strike that coal miners waged to protest then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies which included efforts to bust the unions.

The show’s message (most directly expressed in the musical by a jolly Christmas song that talks about longing for the prime minister’s death) is unabashedly liberal and celebrates working people who stick together and the principle that it really does take a village to support a child. Who wouldn’t love
a show like that at a time when our own economic policies suck, the guys running our financial institutions and corporations don’t seem to know what the hell they’re doing and it’s beginning to dawn on all of us that we are part of a global village that really has to pull together if we want to make it through these hard times.

But it’s not just the political message that clicks. This is one of the most out-and-out entertaining musicals to open on Broadway in years.
The music by Elton John is all character-driven and includes stirring anthems, moving ballads, and bouncy music hall romps. Lee Hall smartly adapted his own screenplay for the movie and wrote the lyrics, maintaining the show’s spirit in the transfer. Unlike so many contemporary musicals, Billy Eliot doesn’t strain to be ironic or hip. It’s the kind of musical that Rodgers and Hammerstein might have written if they were still around. And I mean that as a compliment.

The movie’s director Stephen Daldry made the transfer too. Daldry is an old-hand at stage work in Britain and on Broadway (he did the Tony-winning 1994 revival of An Inspector Calls, whic
h holds a special place in my heart because it’s the first Broadway show my husband K and I saw when we were courting) and he creates a thoroughly theatrical experience. In fact, have you noticed that much of the most imaginative and innovative stage work these days (The History Boys, Coram Boy, Black Watch, even the current love-it-or-hate-it revival of All My Sons) is coming from Britain?

Most of the early publicity about the show has centered around the three young boys—David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik, Kiril Kulish—who rotate the part of Billy (click here to read the New York Magazine version of the story). And deservedly so. There isn’t a more demanding role on Broadway right now. K and I saw the London production soon after it opened in 2005 (it's still going strong) and although I liked the show, I felt the British performers weren’t up to the skill level I was used to on Broadway. I wondered what
an American cast would do with the show. Now, I know.

Peter Darling’s bravura choreography requires a young dancer who is as precociously gifted as Billy is supposed to be. But the youngster playing the role must also be able to sing, act, imitate a Northen English accent (don’t worry; you’ll understand what the actors are saying) and hold the stage amidst a cast of 45 including veteran scene stealers like Gregory Jbara and Carole Shelley, who play Billy’s father and grandmother, the British actress Haydn Gwynne, who recreates the role she originated as his dance teacher, and a bevy of adorable little-girl ballerinas.

Kulish performed the night I attended and he handled all the tasks with aplomb (click here to see him
perform a number from the show on TV’s “The View”). I couldn’t imagine the other boys being any better. Later in the week my pal Bill, who had also seen Kulish, and I had dinner with Esther of Gratuitous Violins and found she felt much the same way about Kowalik. All of three of us admitted to wanting to see Alvarez, who performed on opening night and drew most of the reviews, but the show doesn’t publish a schedule of which boy will perform on which night and so there’s no surefire way to guarantee who’ll you’ll see when you go.

But you definitely should go. The critics have been nearly as enraptured as the folks in the audience were and the show is a certified hit. With the economy being what it is, tickets are available for most performances and as Billy and his neighbors would tell you, sometimes you have to make a sacrifice for art.


Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Glad you enjoyed B&M! It's quite a show. And I've been listening to and enjoying the original cast CD from London since seeing it there three years ago. It gets better with each listen.

Olivia Mullen said...

Yea i am seeing it BE in Feb. and i am thrilled! I am sure David is just as good as Trent and Kiril because of the amazing reveiws from the New York Times.

Janine said...

I love your blog. Thank you for having it. I'm just starting out as a theatre reviewer and it's great to have a blog I can follow that gives me something I can aspire to be. Billy Elliot is defintley a show I am excited about seeing. I have heard amazing things about it from my friends who go to school in New York who have seen it.


jan@broadwayandme said...

Thanks for all the comments and a special welcome to Janine. Let us know where we can read your reviews.