By Manning Harris
In 2009 we reported in these pages that the Broadway production of “Billy Elliot,” the musical, now playing at the Fox through March 18, was a totally thrilling experience. In that year the show won ten Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Ben Brantley of the New York Times called it “a concentrated dose of ecstasy.” It is based on the acclaimed 2000 British film about an 11-year-old lad from a northern English mining town who discovers he has a talent for dancing. The film’s premiere at Cannes was seen by Elton John, who was quite overwhelmed, and decided that writer Lee Hall’s movie would make a splendid musical (he composed). Stephen Daldry directed both the film and the musical.
When I saw “Billy” on Broadway, I was fortunate enough to have a second row seat in a theatre that only seats about 1,500. Even though I’m a near-religious fan of both the movie and the musical, I must report (and I’ve said this before) that the grand old Fox with its 4,500 seats can swallow shows up; you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that it’s really too big for live theatre. Therefore, I must report that my experience last night at “Billy” lacked the intimacy and electricity of the Broadway “Billy”; furthermore, for some inexplicable reason, the pace seemed a bit slow at times.
That said, there are still 1,000 reasons why you should see it (besides the fact that it’s closed on Broadway; still running in London). In Billy’s quest to achieve, he mirrors all trapped souls longing for transcendence—that’s why you don’t have to like dance or musicals to be truly moved by this show.
Billy’s interest in dance is not shared, to put it mildly, by his rough-and-tumble coal mining father and older brother. His mother is deceased, but Billy can feel—and even see—her warmth and support.
But quite by accident the tart-tongued, big-hearted Mrs. Wilkinson (Leah Hocking), a dance teacher of mainly untalented little girls, becomes Billy’s ticket to freedom and a new life. She recognizes that he has a gift. She tutors him on the sly and tells him he should audition for the the Royal Ballet School in London—a seemingly impossible goal for a boy of Billy’s background.
At all times there is the boisterous backdrop of the British National Union of Mineworkers, on strike against the threatened closures of the “Iron Lady,” Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who doesn’t hesitate to use riot police. This produces a stunning close to Act I: Billy’s “Angry Dance,” performed against a backdrop of impenetrable police shields and barriers. It’s such a knockout moment that Billy takes a quick bow, usually reserved for curtain calls; the bow is justified.
For me the most magical segment of the evening occurs in the majestic, breathtaking pas de deux between Billy and his older self, a moment in which Billy’s dreams take flight, literally and figuratively. Total goose bump time.
Then there is the charming, wise comedy of Billy’s flamboyant best friend Michael (Cameron Clifford—a born show-stopper) who advises Billy—and us all—about “Expressing Yourself.” Also there is Billy’s brilliant dancing in the climactic “Electricity.” Still more goose bumps.
Billy was played last night by the mega-talented J. P. Viernes. On tour he shares the role with three other phenomenons. The whole cast is brilliant: the aforementioned Ms. Hocking, Dad (Rich Hebert), Grandma (Patti Perkins), Tony (Joel Blum), Mr. Braithwaite (Job Christenson), and many others.
So the Fox is too big; go anyway, citizens—if you can get a ticket. www.broadwayacrossamerica.com