Story: Times are always tough in northeastern England, where the dirty and dangerous occupation of coal mining has been the main source of income to the locals for centuries. In 1984, though, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has sworn to shut down the government-operated coal industry, threatening to take their livelihood away from 300,000 miners. While his widowed father and older brother Tony engage with their colleagues in a lengthy miners’ strike against the government, 11-year-old Billy Elliot accidentally meanders from his weekly boxing lesson into a ballet class in an adjoining community center room.
Quickly, dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson spots an innate ability in Billy and nurtures him above and beyond her other pupils, all girls. She encourages Billy to audition for the Royal Ballet, but the lad resists, discouraged in part by the disdain of his father and brother for this ‘girlish’ pursuit as well as heterosexual Billy’s concern that he not being labeled gay. As months go by and the coal strike cripples Billy’s home town, a decision must be made by Billy, Mrs. Wilkinson and the entire community about Billy’s attempt to audition for the Royal Ballet and escape a depressing future back home.
Highlights: Postponed from an earlier scheduled appearance in St. Louis, the second national tour (but first actual, ‘national’ trek) of Billy Elliot the Musical finally arrived at the Fox Theatre on November 1 for a two-week run. Based on a 2000 film, the musical first opened in London’s West End and then made a triumphant appearance on Broadway in 2009, where it garnered a record-tying 15 Tony Award nominations and won a staggering 10, including Best Musical, Best Direction, Best Book and Best Choreography. Lee Hall smoothly adapted his screenplay into award-winning book and lyrics, Stephen Daldry reprised his effort as director and Sir Elton John wrote the score.
Other Info: At nearly three hours, Billy Elliot the Musical requires a bit of stamina on the part of its audience. That isn’t a problem in Act I, which shows considerable strength as it goes about setting Billy’s story and introducing its various characters. With obvious references to Les Miserables in its choreography and haunting musical score, John and Hall paint a melancholy picture of the gritty, day-to-day existence of the miners and their impoverished families. Most notable in this depiction is the show’s best number, We’d Go Dancing, a not-so-fond reminiscence of Billy’s Grandma (Jillian Rees-Brown on media night) about her abusive, late husband, which features a stirring bit with a chorus transporting a row of chairs across the stage in inspired unison.
Despite an overly long and dreary second act, the show’s second-best number is a strongly poetic bit featuring Billy (played on media night by J.P. Viernes) dancing with his older self (Maximilien Baud) in a moving Tchaikovsky dance.
Ian MacNeil’s Tony Award-winning set design is an impressive mix of drab, dreary background that evokes the look of a depressed mining community, with Billy’s modest home and a functional dance studio in the foreground. Peter Darling’s choreography is the true star of the production, with the aforementioned numbers highlighting several strong pieces. Additional technical work includes lighting by Rick Fisher, working-class costumes by Nicky Gillibrand and sound design by Paul Arditti.
The role of Billy is rotated among Viernes, Ty Forhan, Kylend Hetherington and Lex Ishimoto. Jacob Zelonky (alternating with Ben Cook) was exuberant on media night in the role of Billy’s gay friend Michael, whose emerging awareness of his sexuality is accentuated in Expressing Yourself, a bizarre bit featuring giant versions of ladies’ costumes cleverly choreographed by Darling. Rich Hebert plays Billy’s father and Cullen Titmas is his brother Tony, and both deliver strong if minor performances.
The real stand-out interpretation is by Leah Hocking in the role of the no-nonsense Mrs. Wilkinson. Hocking does a splendid job showing both Wilkinson’s gritty roots as well as her keen eye for talent, and she meshes well with Viernes in several teacher-student scenes. Samantha Blair Cutler effectively plays her daughter and Billy’s friend Debbie. Kat Hennessey does a fine if brief job as Billy’s late mother, especially on the show’s most affecting tune, Dear Billy.
The thick British accents essayed by the cast result in many moments lacking clarity in both dialogue and lyrics, making the long second act feel even longer. Still, the solid work of the orchestra conducted by keyboardist Susan Draus, with supervision and orchestrations by Martin Koch, bring John’s musical score to realization. Dancing, though, definitely is the strong suit for Billy Elliot.
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Musical: Billy Elliot the Musical
Group: Touring Company
Venue: Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand
Dates: Through November 13
Tickets: From $33; contact 534-1111 or metrotix.com