It’s not as if there isn’t plenty of powerful material here. Set against the backdrop of the tragically failed 1984 Durham miners’ strike, the plot revolves around Billy’s discovery of his gift for dancing and his dream of auditioning for the Royal Ballet. Encouraged by Mrs. Wilkinson, the local dance teacher, Billy must overcome not only his father’s prejudices about the perceived lack of masculinity of his art but also the crippling economic barriers erected by the strike and the brutal campaign by Margaret Thatcher’s corporatist regime to crush both the strike and the union. Billy eventually gets his audition and much more, but not without paying a financial and moral price.
I think Mr. Hall’s book is at least partly responsible. It raises interesting questions about the conflict between the needs of the lucky gifted individual and those of the community as a whole and then sidesteps them, opting for what struck me as a somewhat shallow “feel-good” ending complete with a flashy company dance number and interminable curtain calls.
When, on the day of his departure for ballet school, Mrs. Wilkinson tells Billy to leave and never look back, wouldn’t this have been a good time for Billy to acknowledge the debt he owed to the community that raised him? When a “scab” miner donates hundreds of pounds to the fund for Billy’s audition trip to London, wouldn’t this have been an opportunity for the strikebreaker to acknowledge that it was compensation for his betrayal? The script’s great strength is that it raises provocative political and moral issues. Its great weakness is that it effectively punts them. Yes, the story can’t have the same resonance for an American audience that it had for a British one, but even so I feel it should have had more impact that it did.
The often-sluggish pace of the production was also an issue, at least on opening night. Some comic scenes were drawn out and milked for laughs, while other moments were sometimes prolonged past the point where dramatic tension had dissipated. The potential was there for both comedy and tragedy, but not enough of it was realized to prevent “Billy Elliot” from descending into tedium by the end of its three-hour running time
That’s a shame, since there are some truly exceptional performances in this Second National Tour production, starting with the ensemble. I know that protocol says I should start with the leading actors, but “Billy Elliot” is a show in which the ensemble does a lot of the heavy lifting. Peter Darling’s choreography is as inventive as it is complex, and the polished execution of his dances is a thing of beauty.
Perhaps the best example of this is “Solidarity”, which pits striking miners against police while juxtaposing their violent confrontation with the gentle dancing of the girls in Mrs. Wilkinson’s class. The intricate mingling of all three groups emphasizes the intrusion of violent conflict into the community’s daily life, while a bit in which the cops and miners exchange hats points out the way in which the strike divides the community. You could wind up wearing either hat; it’s just the luck of the draw. The dance demands precision timing and gets it.
Among the principals, J.P. Viernes shines in the title role. Despite his youth, he’s already something of a veteran in the part, having played it in Chicago, Toronto, and San Francisco. His assured work here is no surprise, therefore, but it’s still quite impressive. He alternates in the role with Ty Forhan, Kylend Hetherington, and Lex Ishimoto.
Leah Hocking shows both the “sod off” attitude and heart of gold of Mrs. Wilkinson, and matches both with fluid dance moves. Her big “Born to Boogie” number, in which she reminds Billy how fundamentally human the desire to dance really is, was a highlight. Patrick Wetzel is a hoot as her surprisingly agile dogsbody, Mr. Braithewaite.
Substituting for Patty Perkins on opening night, ensemble member Jillian Rees-Brown turned in a touching performance as Billy’s grandmother. “We’d Go Dancin’”, the song in which she remembers her late, unlamented husband,” was a fine solo turn. “I hated the sod – for thirty-three year,” she recalls, “but we’d go dancing, he was me own Brando / And for a moment there my heart was a’glow”. The accompanying choreography, with the entire male ensemble taking on the role of the young Grandpa, is simple but highly effective.
Rich Hebert’s Dad was clearly carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. His lament for his lost past and dim future, “Deep Into the Ground”, was moving. He was equally convincing in the character’s comic moments during the “backstage” sequence at Billy’s London audition. At the other end of the timeline, Jacob Zelonky was a comic dynamo as Billy’s friend Michael, cheerfully comfortable with both his love of cross-dressing and his emerging gayness. The entire subplot with Michael struck me as an irrelevant distraction, though.
Cullen R. Titmas was a powerful presence as Billy’s older brother Tony. Tony is the character who fully articulates the terrible cost of the failed strike, so Mr. Titmas’s strong performance was essential. It’s Tony, after all, who reminds us that while the realization of Billy’s dream is a cause for celebration, there are still 200,000 men who will soon be out of work and “they can’t all be dancers”. The question of whether it’s better to help one boy achieve greatness than to help many more lead average but fulfilling lives is one of many left on the table at the end of the evening.
The visual design elements of the show are first rate. Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes neatly highlight time, place, and character, while Ian MacNeil’s sets are models of efficiency, strongly delineating the different scenes while allowing for fluid shifts among them.
The traveling pit band sounded great. It was augmented by five local musicians: Mike Buerk and Rob Hughes in woodwinds, Nancy Schick on French horn, Andy Tichenor on trumpet, and Jay Hungerford on bass. The wind section is especially welcome, given the strong influence of the classic British brass band on Elton John’s score.
The quality of the amplified sound was, sadly, not up to the quality of either the instrumental or vocal performances. It was muddy at best and, when combined with the very realistic-sounding northern English accents of the cast, rendered much of the spoken and sung dialog incomprehensible. If you haven’t already familiarized yourself with the original cast recording, you’d be advised to do so before seeing this show.
Sight lines are also an issue. The false proscenium the tour uses is probably an unavoidable necessity given how many different spaces it has to play, but it greatly reduces visibility on either side of house center. You’ll want to bear that in mind when purchasing tickets.
That said, I think “Billy Elliot – the Musical is worth seeing”. Yes, it doesn’t always succeed, but when it fails, it does so in a way that’s interesting and thought provoking. Sometimes an ambitious failure is more compelling than a modest success. My wife and I were thinking and talking about the issues raised in “Billy Elliot” long after the show was over, which is more than I can say about some far more coherent plays in recent memory.
“Billy Elliot – the Musical” runs through November 13 at the Fox Theatre in Grand Center. Be aware that the show’s language is sometimes realistically frank, as its treatment of sexuality, so you’ll want to take that into account when deciding whether to bring your offspring. I’d say that by the time they’re Billy’s age (he’s 11 at the beginning of the show) they’re probably up for it, but your mileage may vary. In any case, you may visit fabulousfox.com or call 314-534-1678 for more information.