Monday, November 22, 2010

Billy Elliot The Musical


When Elton John saw the movie BILLY ELLIOT at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, he wept. He stated, “The story is very similar to mine: Trying to be something out of the ordinary. Having a talent and wanting to break free from what others want you to do.”

John was so inspired that he approached a director about making the film into a stage musical. After many rejections, based on “who wants to see a musical of striking miners and a kid in Northern England,” John prevailed. The results? A musical that won 10 Tony Awards, and has been seen by over 4.5 million people. A musical which opened on Sunday evening to an enthusiastic audience at the State Theatre. They came expecting something special and from the way they responded, they received it.

BILLY is not the traditional feel good musical. Yes, in the end, there is a happy ending; but, in the process, the story of an adolescent who discovers he has a talent for dance and pursues it against the vehement objections of his father and the derision of his coal mining villagers, is also filled with the devastating repercussions of the 1984 British coal miners strike, which has affected that country until this day.

Besides the low key Elton John music, the thing that seems to most excite the audience is the boy, actually boys, playing Billy. As Stephen Daldry, the show's choreographer puts it, “Not only is the character [Billy] onstage for the better part of three hours, he sings, acts, speaks with a Northern English dialect, does gymnastics, and dances in a variety of styles. In the touring production, the part of Billie is traded off by five boys.

Opening night found 13-year old Giuseppe Bausilio, from Bern, Switzerland, who recently appeared in the role during the Chicago run of the show, as Billie. Other Billies on this tour are from Australia, Michigan and California. The average stay for a Billie is 1.5 years. They physically grow and their voices change. In fact, ”each boy grows out of their shoes at least once, often twice during their time in the role.”

The plot revolves around a boy, whose mother has died and is being brought up by his grandmother, coal mining father and brother, and who, under the guidance of a tough minded dance teacher, trades boxing gloves for ballet shoes. It is based on A. J. Cronin's novel, THE STARS LOOK DOWN, to which the musical's opening song pays homage.

As Alex, my 15-year old grandson, who comes along to productions to give the tween-teen point of view stated, “This is more than a musical about a kid with untapped talent. There is a strong story of history that has to be understood in order to gain a true understanding of the show.” With that in mind he indicated the need to read the information in the program or the poster in the lobby in order to gain the necessary background. “It also might not be appropriate for younger kids due to the language and the story, but they could appreciate the dancing and the fun parts.” He was impressed by the dancing, thought the singing was acceptable, and the story line was well developed.”

The touring production is blessed with a uniformly excellent cast, headed by the multi-talented Faith Prince, probably best known for her Tony award winning portrayal of Adelaide in the revival of GUYS AND DOLLS. Highlight performers included Jacob Zelonky, as Billy's cross-dressing chum, Rich Hebert as Dad, Patti Perkins as Grandma and Jeff Kready as Billy's brother.

Highlights of the show include a balletic duet performed by Maximilien Baud and Bausilio, the intense “Angry Dance,” and the exuberant “Express Yourself.” There wasn't a dry eye in the house during the original “Dear Billy” a letter from Billy's dead mother to him, and the song's revival, in which Billy writes.

The full orchestra was excellent, as was the corps dancing. The stylistic settings, though somewhat low budget, worked.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL will hit audiences on many levels. There is a solid story, excellent dancing, quality acting and a talented 13-year old. BTW---don't run out at the start of the curtain calls…it's worth the wait to see the cast totally let loose in a rousing after-act.