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Billy Elliot: The Musical

The Elton John-Lee Hall musical adaptation of the hit film about an English boy who decides to become a ballet dancer is gangbuster entertainment.

By New York City
David Alvarez in Billy Elliot: The Musical
(© David Scheinmann)
David Alvarez in Billy Elliot: The Musical
(© David Scheinmann)
Anyone feeling curmudgeonly about Billy Elliot: The Musical, now at Broadway's Imperial Theatre, could take exception to the time it expends picking up dramatic steam or to the indisputably effective but surprisingly traditional Elton John-Lee Hall score or to the couple of seemingly redundant production numbers that stretch the proceedings to the kind of length that often tests children's -- and some adults' -- attention spans. But one would have to be a true sourpuss to carp about the gangbuster entertainment package that's finally landed in Manhattan under the scrupulous direction of Stephen Daldry.

The show's rock-solid storyline, which Hall has adapted from his tough-minded 2000 screenplay, concerns Billy (David Alvarez at my press performance; he shares the role with Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish), a miner's 11-year-old son who decides he wants to become a ballet dancer just as the 1984 National Union of Mineworkers strike is testing Margaret Thatcher's iron resolve as well as the strength of his rural community. (The show's language is site-specific explicit, which means there are numerous obscenities uttered by adults and youngsters alike in a North England accent to which patrons must often listen carefully.)

Hall wisely skirts sentimentality as Billy fights his widowed miner father (Gregory Jbara) and volatile older brother Tony (Santino Fontana) and cares for his feisty forgetful grandma (Carole Shelley). Cannily, Hall places the embattled family within the context of a town facing obsolescence, even as children's ballet-school teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (Haydn Gwynne) tries to bring a splotch of culture to the benighted area.

That Billy ultimately gets where he wants to go, and that his father and brother support him despite earlier political inclinations, prejudices and misgivings, is not unexpected. What does make the heart leap -- or should one say jete -- is how Billy gets there. The curly-black-mopped, thin-shouldered Alvarez plays the boy as an abashed youth who gains stature once he places trust in Mrs. Wilkinson's firm statement that "dancing is as much about discovering things about yourself as it is discovering things about dancing." He not only discovers Billy's depth; he repeatedly illuminates them through explosive dancing, acceptable singing, and raw but affecting emoting.

The entire cast -- including the shape-assorted miners and ballerinas -- has been expertly drilled by Daldry, with the acerbic Gwynne (the sole holdover from the original London cast), the scene-stealing Shelley, Leah Hocking as the loving mum of Billy's memory, and the pint-sized Erin Whyland as Mrs. Wilkinson's precocious and plain-spoken daughter among those making the strongest impressions.

Equally important, one cannot overlook the enormous contribution of choreographer Peter Darling. Not only is his second-act duet for Billy and his fantasy older self (the head-to-toe-chiseled Stephen Hanna) -- set to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake -- a lovely dream of classical ballet, but throughout he's found ways to make the fleet-footed and never flat-footed cast live up to "Shine," one of the best John-Hall songs. He gets considerable mileage from "Expressing Yourself," which Billy hoofs with incipient-gay buddy Michael (the twinkling-eyed Frank Dolce on press night), and from "Solidarity" -- perhaps the show's most probing number -- in which Darling arranges the striking miners, the repressing police, and the young girls to make the show's crucial underlying observation that it takes a village to raise a child.

Indeed, just as Billy's village ultimately rallies around him, it takes a theater village like this one -- including set designer Ian MacNeil, lighting designer Rick Fisher, costume designer Nicky Gillibrand, and sound designer Paul Arditti -- to make a hit like Billy Elliot.


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