Friday, November 14, 2008
Billy Elliot Opens in New York
It's not often that a musical comes along that is as ambitious as it is emotional — and then succeeds on both counts.
But "Billy Elliot," which opened Thursday at Broadway's Imperial Theatre, is an exceptional work that exemplifies what the best musicals are all about: collaboration. Everything comes together in this impressive, warmhearted adaptation of the 2000 British film about a North Country coal miner's young son who yearns to dance and join the Royal Ballet School in London.
The movie was directed by Stephen Daldry, who performed the same duties for this stage version, a big hit in London for the last three years. And there's no reason to believe "Billy Elliot" won't be just as popular in New York.
Daldry has done a masterful job assembling a superlative cast and artistic team that includes pop superstar Elton John, who wrote the music, and Lee Hall, who adapted his own screenplay and wrote the lyrics, too.
But let's start with some of the actors, particularly the title character and the show's gaggle of youngsters. Not since "Annie" have children been used so well on a Broadway stage. Daldry has triple cast the role of Billy, with three boys rotating in what must be one of the marathon roles of musical theater.
At one of the last preview performances before the opening, Billy was played by David Alvarez, a dark-eyed, curly haired youngster with a solemn demeanor and astonishing grace. The most satisfying moments in musicals often take you by surprise, and watching as Billy begins to dance for the first time is one of them.
The miracle occurs in a dance class for little girls (a riotously inept corps de ballet) run by a delightfully jaded, chain-smoking teacher named Mrs. Wilkinson. She is portrayed by the show's superb London original, Haydn Gwynne. The woman's comic demeanor camouflages her fierce desire for her pupils to "Shine," one of John's more exuberant numbers.
That leads to one of the show's other heroes, choreographer Peter Darling, whose airborne creations (at one point, literally) gets everybody dancing by the musical's exuberant finale. Yet Darling's dances are about more than ballet.
"Billy Elliot" takes place in the mid-1980s, the heyday of Margaret Thatcher's England, and is set against the backdrop of a bitter miners strike. Billy's tentative steps into the world of ballet are contrasted with this contentious walkout, and Darling's inventive use of movement to show both worlds is dance storytelling at its finest.
Hall carefully creates a parade of vivid supporting characters. Billy's father (Gregory Jbara) and militant older brother (Santino Fontana) at first denigrate Billy's desire to dance.
The young man finds encouragement from a variety of people, not the least being his good buddy Michael, a cheerful cross-dresser who delivers his toe-tapping philosophy in a song called "Express Yourself." As played by a pint-sized song-and-dance man named Frank Dolce (one of two young actors who alternate in the role), this lad will have no trouble filling the shoes — make that high heels — of Judy, Liza or Bette when he grows up.
Another mentor is Billy's dotty grandmother, played with delectable astringency by Carole Shelley. It is she who remembers her late husband primarily because he was a great dancer, so maybe dancing was in Billy's genes after all.
Yet hovering most emotionally over the story is Billy's dead mother, who returns to comfort her son. Leah Hocking offers these words of encouragement in the form of a letter, which happens to be one of the composer's most touching songs. Unabashedly sentimental? Of course. But effective nonetheless.
John's music is his most expansive yet for the theater. Unlike the more rigidly pop-flavored melodies for "The Lion King" and "Aida," the songs here range from huge, hymnlike chorale numbers for the miners to several jaunty comedy songs including a catchy number entitled "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher," whose melody will be permanently etched in your brain.
Most startling, though, is the raging rock music that closes Act 1, a fierce barrage that accompanies Billy's defiant frustration about being denied his dream.
Hall's lyrics are unassuming in the best way possible. They don't call attention to themselves, but their simple, direct manner serves the story.
And Daldry's design team could not be better. Ian MacNeil's settings are often gloomy, perfect for the bleak coal-mining town. But when show-biz extravagance is called for, MacNeil delivers, particularly in a giant Thatcher puppet or when a parade of equally large frocks start dancing with the dress-addicted Michael.
Rick Fisher's lighting is equally appropriate, dazzlingly in the classical ballet sequences when young Billy dances with an older version of himself (Stephen Hanna).
In the end, though, "Billy Elliot" is a very intimate, personal story. It celebrates being true to yourself and finding your place in the world — even against the most adverse of circumstances. For the striking coal miners, a way of life is disappearing, never to return; for others, such as young Billy, a whole new adventure is about to begin. And "Billy Elliot" tells his tale with amazing theatricality.
Visit the below link to hear Elton & Stephen discuss Billy: