Saturday, March 5, 2011

Theater Review: Another Look at Billy Elliot

A kind of poetic rhythm flows through the entire production of Billy Elliot, the splendid musical that continues to thrill audiences at New York’s Imperial Theatre. When I recently returned to take another look at the immensely popular play, I discovered that this time my deeply felt response to the show was premature: I became emotionally moved just as the houselights were dimmed, partly because the anticipation was like an electrical charge that appeared to shoot through the entire auditorium.

The production, meticulously directed by Stephen Daldry (who was also at the helm for the brilliant film version in 2000), remains a theatrical treasure. When the action begins (on the eve of the 1984 Miners’ Strike during Margaret Thatcher’s conservative governance), the discouraged but determined workers vow to “stand as one, beneath the sun.” At the same time, Billy (a spectacular Alex Ko at the performance I attended*) is on his way to his boxing lesson when he wanders into a ballet studio, where a chain-smoking Mrs. Wilkinson (the excellent Emily Skinner) is haphazardly instructing a group of her young ballet girls to “give ‘em that old razzle dazzle and shine.” Billy, who is captivated by the fidgety toe dancers, attempts to emulate the girls and, before you can say “Rudolf Nureyev,” he becomes addicted.

The problem here is that Billy’s macho dad (a powerful Gregory Jbara) and older brother (Will Chase), both striking miners, are not sympathetic. They equate male ballet dancers with effeminacy; and yet, for Billy, “it’s a feeling that you can’t control/ I suppose it’s like forgetting, losing who you are.” And it’s no surprise that his close friend, Michael (a splendid Neil McCaffrey), a juvenile cross-dresser, is more encouraging: “The world’s grey enough without making it worse/What we need is individuality,” he sings.

But Billy does need the moral support. His mother (Laura Marie Duncan) died several years before the story begins; and yet, she materializes on stage every so often to advise her young son in scenes that are sadly poignant. These flashbacks serve to integrate the present with the past. In addition, the boy’s slightly disoriented grandmother(Carole Shelley) is also there to sing about her married life. If she were given another opportunity, she’d “spin around and reel and love each bit/And I’d dance alone and enjoy it./ And I’d be me for an entire life./Instead of somebody’s wife....”

A major portion of the plot is devoted to how and when Billy will audition for the Royal Ballet. When the tension becomes almost unbearable, the lad defines his agitation by performing a resistive, flashy solo, aptly entitled “Electricity,” in which he demonstrates grand pirouettes, off-center spins and impressive jumps. All of his dreams, hopes and fears appear to be superbly compressed into this spectacular number. There is also a splendid, poignant dream sequence in which Billy and an adult male (representing the dancer the young boy will become in spite of his humble roots)) perform a moving pas de deux from Swan Lake.

Elton John’s music has just the right amount of spontaneous texture and Lee Hall’s lyrics are crisp and cunning. Ian MacNeil has provided a series of apt props and functionally unfussy settings for the play’s various, swift-moving changes. And Rick Fisher’s lighting design does wonders to set the needed mood, from the depths of the dank, dank mines to the bright, celebratory finale of the show.

Billy Elliot is the rare musical play that ignites from the moment the curtain goes up. The many mysterious powers it possesses must be witnessed.

*Four boys (Jacob Clemente, Joseph Harrington, Alex Ko, and Peter Mazurowski) alternate in the role of Billy.