Sunday, April 5, 2009

Theater Review: Billy Elliot

Trust me: That’s gold you see shining in the midst of all of those cinders and clinkers on Broadway. Billy Elliot has finally opened at New York’s Imperial Theater. And like the film (2000), this staged version is the tale of a motherless, 11-year-old son of a coal miner from a small town in northern England. When the lad becomes bored with boxing lessons, he discovers that, like Gene Kelly, he’s “gotta dance.”

This energetic, inventive musical takes place during the destructive 1984 conflict between striking miners and police during Margaret Thatcher’s governance. The story centers around Billy, an 11-year-old boy, and his uncommon desire to become a ballet dancer. (Three boys alternate in the demanding role. A spectacular Trent Kowalik performed on the evening I attended.) Billy’s mother (a beautiful Leah Hocking) died years before the story begins, but she materializes now and then to advise her young son. Those who remain in the house are Billy’s dad (a superb Gregory Jbara), an older brother (a fine Santino Fontana) and a slightly unhinged grandmother (the admirable Carole Shelley).

The excellent Haydn Gwynne is the only performer from the London production (which continues to play to sold-out houses) to be cast in New York. It is she (Mrs. Wilkinson) who spots Billy trying to emulate some of the steps that the girls in her ballet class are rehearsing. With her encouragement, Billy becomes smitten with the idea of being a ballet dancer. But the boy’s macho father and brother, both striking miners, are not amused. When it’s suggested that Rudolph Nureyev is “not a puff,” his dad blurts out, ”He’s as bent as a nine-bob note, son.” However, Billy’s close friend, Michael (a remarkably apt Frank Dolce at the performance I saw), a budding cross-dresser, is more encouraging: “If you wanna to be a dancer, dance,” he sings, “If you wanna be a miner, mine/If you want to dress like somebody else, fine, fine, fine.”

Everything about the production seems right. Ian MacNeil’s quick-changing set is minimal and austere but remarkably imaginative and effective. Rick Fisher’s ingenious lighting scheme constantly surprises. Lee Hall’s relevant lyrics appear to pair up nicely with Elton John’s suitable music, and all of their songs originate from plot and characterization. The costumes by Nicky Gillibrand are, depending on the situation, either suitably drab or spectacularly hilarious. And Peter Darling’s exciting choreography seamlessly combines modern dance and classical technique. In one flashy, solo dance number, aptly called “Electricity,” Billy performs dizzying off-center spins, grand pirouettes and phenomenal jumps. It’s no surprise that the kinetic excitement becomes contagious, and the wildly enthusiastic audience reacts thunderously. We’re also treated to a beautiful dream sequence in which Billy and the future dancer he will become perform a pas de deux from Swan Lake.

Early in the musical’s first act, Mrs. Wilkinson sings that her students must “give em that old razzle dazzle and shine/And shine/And shine....” Well, Billy Elliot, the musical, shines and dazzles and soars.