Billy Elliott: The Musical | 11.02.11

The choreography is brilliant, from the exuberant folk and clog dancing styles used by the townsfolk to the tap ranging from traditional to a hybrid with hip-hop moves to the stunning ballet sequence with Billy and his older self.

 

The Fabulous Fox Theatre, St. Louis

Billy Elliot is a movie about an 11-year-old boy who dreams of being a ballet dancer, despite his working-class background in northeastern England’s coal belt. He is the son of a widowed father who scrimps to send the boy to boxing lessons at the community center, but Billy hates boxing. When he finds a dance class in the same space, he secretly joins. His natural ability is soon evident to the teacher, and she hatches a plan to get him into the school at the Royal Ballet in London. Dad, meanwhile, is busy with the 1984 miner’s strike that ultimately decimated the British coal industry during the administration of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It’s a serious story leavened with humor, love, and the joy found in art. Billy Elliot: The Musical, now playing at the Fox Theatre, tells the same story. The major difference is that the film is excellent; the live show, not so much.

We’ll get this out of the way upfront: Billy Elliot: The Musical is still a hot ticket on Broadway and won 10 Tony Awards. Ten! There were only four nominees in 2009, so that enhanced its chances for Best (New) Musical, but one of those nominees was Next to Normal; therefore, this outcome does not seem possible. But there you have it, and “Billy” certainly does have some elements to recommend it, so let’s start there.

The choreography is brilliant. From the exuberant folk and clog dancing styles used by the townsfolk to the tap ranging from traditional to a hybrid with hip-hop moves to the stunning ballet sequence with Billy and his older self (Maximilien A. Baud) both mirroring and supporting him, it is nearly flawless. Billy is played by four boys, and J.P. Viernes had the role the night I saw the production. He is a fine dancer and actor and a competent singer with an appealing personality. As the stereotypical tough-but-tender teacher Mrs. Wilkinson, Leah Hocking does well showing us the mush beneath the crust. She sings well and dances adequately. She is sort of paired with the entirely unnecessary Mr. Braithwaite (Patrick Wetzel), who plays piano, drinks, and can do splits when he dances, so he’s entertaining.

Billy’s family consists of his dad (Rich Hebert), who is also president of the local miners union; his dotty grandma (played by understudy Jillian Rees-Brown); his hotheaded brother who is all in with the strikers, Tony (Cullen R. Titmas); and his dead mother’s ghost (Kat Hennessey). Billy’s home life is depicted with mixed success. I thought Titmas was excellent, Hebert very good, and Rees-Brown capable—but each of the characters are stereotypes.

His father cares about his sons, but when he learns of Billy’s interest in ballet, he doesn’t get it at all and worries that Billy is a “puff.” Could be, but he does seem to reject the blandishments of his friend Michael (Jacob Zelonky at this performance), an extraneous character seemingly based on Sir Elton John himself who was rendered so verklempt by the movie that he conceived the stage version and wrote all the music for it. Michael dresses up in women’s clothing and kisses Billy, but flamboyant as he is, he does beg Billy not to “tell,” even though Michael doesn’t seem to be hiding his own identity.

Act I starts off promisingly with a strong number from the ensemble on the eve of the Miner’s strike, and then a completely forgettable song “Shine” introduces the ballet class. One of the central problems with this show is that all the music is almost instantly forgettable, except for one very fine piece by someone named Tchaikovsky, a bit from Swan Lake which accompanies the “Billys” ballet. The rest of the first act swings from mediocre to maudlin to downright offensive. It’s cheap to milk laughs out of a little girl saying “dickhead” or an elderly woman’s salty language and proclivity for flipping the bird. But people do seem to like that sort of thing; I guess it’s the incongruity of it all. The only real highlight here is the final number by Billy called “Angry Dance,” in which he expresses his frustrations through his feet.

Act II is stronger. “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher” opens as a part of a Christmas pageant put on by the miners in which the climactic moment sees the release of a huge and grotesque puppet caricature of the Iron Lady waving and flapping over the stage-on-a-stage. Dad has a moment here to let us hear his fine, sad baritone and there’s a lot of dirge-like stuff, again from the miners that owes way too much to Les Miserables. But there is at least some substance in this part of the show, including Billy’s audition and another amazing solo from him, “Electricity.” I do think it’s a mistake for someone to yell “Sing Out Tracy” to an overweight child who is the butt of jokes in the ballet class, because it reminds us that this show isn’t even close to being the iconic Gypsy. Still, when Billy finally makes his way up the long aisle of the Fox and the whole cast comes out onstage for a curtain call, I felt that the show had at least partially redeemed itself.

Then disaster struck. The curtain calls just kept on coming. Billy rejoined the company during the first one. Then people did a whole other dance number during which most of the audience took their seats again and had to holler at people down front to sit down because they were blocking the view. Then we applauded some more. Then the whole company came out, and—guess what? Danced! And Grandma got a solo in a tutu. But the absolute nadir of the whole shebang was when the very manly men Jacky (Dad) and Tony were led out in, yes, pink tutus! And we applauded. Or at least most did. And then, just for good measure, Billy took a bow. The show ran about three hours; without these shameless panderings for applause, it would have been half an hour less.

Billy Elliot has a lot to say about embracing diversity, accepting people for who and what they are, the state of the economy (which makes it especially timely right now, because things turn out decidedly badly for the miners), and what families mean and how they function. It addresses all kinds of love and displays all kinds of people. But its success in conveying those messages is buried in schlock. The scenery is shoved around by the actors, and that’s distracting. Also, it looks cheap; I do realize this community is poor, but a set at the Fox shouldn’t look like a high school play, and I believe this one does. And then there are the chairs. They may symbolize something, but I’m not sure what. Still, so much is done with them, including making them ballet partners in the Billy/Billy scene, that they could be considered supporting players. Lighting is OK but the sound is dismal, even for the Fox. If I were you, I’d see the movie for the first time or a repeat viewing. The message is the same, but the medium is far superior. | Andrea Braun

CREDITS: Director: Stephen Daldry; Music: Elton John; Book and Lyrics: Lee Hall; Original Choreography: Peter Darling; Scenic Design: Ian MacNeil

Billy Elliot: The Musical is at the Fox Theatre through Nov. 13, 2011. For more information, please visit www.fabulousfox.com

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