Emily Skinner and Cesar Corrales (center)
with the company of Billy Elliot the Musical
(© Joan Marcus)
Emily Skinner and Cesar Corrales (center)
with the company of Billy Elliot the Musical
(© Joan Marcus)
It's not every day that a 13-year old kid can not only stop a show, but receive a standing ovation in the middle of Act II. But that feat was accomplished by 13-year-old Cesar Corrales, whose performance in the title role in the Chicago production of the Tony Award-winning hit, Billy Elliot the Musical, now at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, proved to be worth the price of admission on opening night.

Corrales is one of four boys who will be rotating in the part, and he is never cloying. That has much to do with the young actor's talent, but it is also in part a testament to the wisdom of director Stephen Daldry and writers Lee Hall and Elton John. Part of Billy's charm is that he says relatively little and sings less, expressing himself by doing what he does best: dance, dance, dance!

Hall wrote this very smart adaptation of his own screenplay of the Oscar-nominated 2000 film (along with the show's lyrics), which focuses on a miner's son who discovers his love of dance while his father, brother and fellow townsfolk are in the midst of a strike that threatens their very survival. Hall clearly understands what theater can do better than film, and knowingly sacrifices realistic details to open up the stage for the fantasy of musical production numbers. If a few elements from the movie have been greatly reduced in the process -- and even moreso in Chicago, where Grandma's one song, "We'd Go Dancing," has been cut -- it's a reasonable price to pay.

John also proves that he understands the collaborative nature of a big musical. His 14 songs may be fewer than in most two-act tuners, but there's no shortage of music because of the extensive dance arrangements of such numbers as "Solidarity" and "Angry Dance" -- richly choreographed by Peter Darling -- both of which forcefully propel the story and the characters forward.

John and Hall also have unleashed their fiercely patriotic political spirits in their ardent condemnation of Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister whose policies form the backdrop for the show. John dips freely into the British music hall tradition, and -- most powerfully -- the Welsh and Northern England miners' traditions of men's choral music in such anthems as "The Stars Look Down" and "Once We Were Kings" and the ballad "Deep Into the Ground."

The show's large cast is another asset. There's particularly convincing work from Emily Skinner as Billy's dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, and Armand Schultz as his emotionally bottled-up Dad, as well as fine contributions from Keean Johnson as Billy's best bud, Michael, Susan McMonagle as Mum, Jim Ortlieb as boxing coach George, and especially Blake Hammond as the plump but agile Mr. Braithwaite.

Without question, the musical covers much familiar territory: the struggle between imagination and reality, the battle between high spirits and repression; and the pull between one's need for tenderness and another's ability to give it. (It looms large that Billy's Dad never gives his son a hug.) But even though we've seen these themes on stage before, they've never more brilliantly packaged and exuberantly presented than in Billy Elliot.