After some rocky previews, marred by a sluggish hydraulic set and overly thick accents, "Billy Elliot" opened last night, proving itself the best gift from Britain since Harry Potter.
This tale of a motherless coal miner's son who was born to dance (ballet, no less) was written, directed and choreographed by the same team behind the 2000 film. But unlike so many shows that plod from screen to stage, "Billy Elliot: The Musical" makes the leap from reheated adaptation to reimagined creation.
For that we can thank not only director Stephen Daldry, writer Lee Hall and a wonderful cast - but also Elton John, whose idea it was to make it a musical in the first place.
This is his best stage score yet, though given his lackluster "Aida" and the bloodless mess that was "Lestat," that's not saying much. Here he's given us memorable music - by turns anthemic, folksy and rock-and-roll rousing - that serve Hall's lyrics well. You'll probably wake the next day humming their raucous "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher" - the Cruella de Vil of the coal miners' union.
But "Billy Elliot" is less about music than dance, and Peter Darling's choreography is easily as thrilling as Twyla Tharp's, when she rocked Billy Joel in "Movin' Out."
Whether it's ballet, modern or tap - or, in one case, tap-dancing while jumping rope - dance is the show's single best special effect. When Billy partners with his older self (Stephen Hanna) to the strains of "Swan Lake," he literally soars to the ceiling.
Nothing would fly, of course, if the show hadn't found its Billy - a boy of about 12 who can sing, act and dance. Here, as in London and Australia, three boys alternate in the role. Having seen Kiril Kulish - his reedy voice tinged with longing, his dancing sublime - I can only wonder how David Alvarez and Trent Kowalik play the part.
Britain's Haydn Gwynne is terrific as the tart-tongued, chain-smoking dance teacher who tutors Billy on the sly. Frank Dolce and David Bologna, seen in separate performances as Michael, Billy's cross-dressing best friend, steal every scene they're in, helped by some of the script's funniest exchanges.
"Ah," Michael murmurs, squeezing into a tutu. "No wonder they call it 'The Nutcracker'!"
Kudos, too, to Gregory Jbara's Dad, a beaten man who finally sees his son for who he is; Carole Shelley's flighty Grandma; and Leah Hocking, whose scenes as Billy's lost Mum are enough to test anyone's mascara. Manipulative? Of course, but it helps to be manipulated by a master.
Granted, "Billy Elliot" isn't perfect - a scene with giant dancing dresses might have gone AWOL from some Disney show on ice - but it's still head and toe-shoes above every other show this season.
So thanks, Maggie Thatcher, for giving us something to sing about.
Your inner dancer is calling. Its voice, sweet but tough and insistent, pulses in every molecule of the new Broadway musical “Billy Elliot,” demanding that you wake up sleeping fantasies of slipping on tap or ballet shoes and soaring across a stage. Few people may have the gift of this show’s title character, a coal miner’s son in northern England who discovers he was born to pirouette. But the seductive, smashingly realized premise of “Billy Elliot,” which opened Thursday night at the Imperial Theater, is that everybody has the urge. And in exploring that urge among the population of a down-at-heels coal town suffering through the British miners’ strike of the mid-1980s, this show both artfully anatomizes and brazenly exploits the most fundamental and enduring appeal of musicals themselves.
It’s been more than three years since “Billy Elliot,” directed by Stephen Daldry and featuring a score by Elton John, first sent critics and audiences into a mass swoon in London, where it continues to play. The delay in bringing the show to Broadway hinted at fears that it might not sit comfortably on American soil.
Adapted by Lee Hall from his screenplay for the affectionately remembered 2000 movie of the same title (also directed by Mr. Daldry), “Billy Elliot” is told in thick working-class accents and an argot that, even in London, necessitated putting a glossary in the program. What’s more, the show traffics in a particularly British brand of bitter treacle, wallowing in the glory of the bravely defeated and the pathos of small, trapped lives.
But the timing of the production’s arrival here, with the United States newly chastened by severe financial woes and fears, gives it a resonance it might not have had in 2005, when big spenders ruled with complacency. “Billy Elliot” is a hard-times musical. And as the culture of the Great Depression made clear, in times of economic darkness there can be blessed relief in dreams of tripping the light.
Much of the power of “Billy Elliot” as an honest tear-jerker lies in its ability to give equal weight to the sweet dreams of terpsichorean flight and the sourness of a dream-denying reality, with the two elements locked in a vital and unending dialogue. This isn’t wholesale escapism à la Busby Berkeley or “Mamma Mia!” In tone, it’s closer to the song-dotted working-class films of Terence Davies or, on television, Dennis Potter’s “Pennies From Heaven.”
This production never lets us forget the elemental tug of war between Billy’s longing to dance and the forces pulling him away from it. Mr. Daldry and his prodigiously inventive team make sure that the conflict is carried through on every level, from Peter Darling’s inspired scene-melding choreography, which gives a new spin to the idea of the integrated musical, to Ian MacNeil’s fluidly moving sets and Rick Fisher’s shadow-casting lighting. And it’s telling that Mr. John’s songs (with lyrics by Mr. Hall) are as infused with the energy of anger as of joy.
The plot, which sticks close to that of Mr. Hall’s screenplay, doesn’t even try to avoid the clichés common to tales of talented, odds-beating backwater youth. Billy is, natch, a motherless boy with a loving but unlettered father (a touching Gregory Jbara) and an adorably addled grandmother, played by the estimable Carole Shelley. Billy is portrayed by three young teenagers, Trent Kowalik, Kiril Kulish and, in the performance I saw, the excellent David Alvarez. (No public schedule is available for which Billy performs on which night.)
There’s the inevitable inspirational teacher, a Mrs. Wilkinson (the sublime Haydn Gwynne, who created the role in London), who sees a spark of greatness in the lad. There’s the time-honored progression from resistance — here by a rough, masculine culture — suspicious of all things arty (embodied by Billy’s brother, played by Santino Fontana, and his father) to acceptance, when the whole town bands together to help send the boy to London for his big audition. There are even, heaven help us, visitations by the fond ghost of Billy’s mother (Leah Hocking).
Yet Mr. Daldry and company turn tripe into triumph by making us understand the depth of the appeal of its classic show-business fairy tale, not only to us but also to the people whose dreary daily existences touch on Billy’s. The evidence of this appeal is abundant in “Billy Elliot,” most obviously in the motley ballet classes presided over by the wryly disparaging Mrs. Wilkinson and a Christmas frolic at the miners’ hall where everybody dresses up as their favorite villainess, Margaret Thatcher. But it’s not just the amateur performers who feel the ineffable pull of song and dance.
Billy’s grandma shucks her shabby housecoat to reveal a sparkling dress and summons a spectral chorus of partners past as she recalls the respite from an unhappy marriage provided by nights of dancing with her alcoholic husband. Mrs. Wilkinson’s grubby rehearsal pianist (Thommie Retter) strips out of his civvies to become a gyrating disco boy for a number called “Born to Boogie.”
And Billy’s best friend, Michael (Frank Dolce, who alternates with David Bologna), reveals the thrill of dressing up in his sister’s clothes and making like Sophie Tucker in the show-stopping “Expressing Yourself.” (The everyday metamorphosis-ready costumes are by Nicky Gillibrand.)
That number — and an electric outcry of frustration called “Angry Dance” — come closest to what one might expect from a venerable pop-chart topper like Mr. John. But much of his work here, far more restrained than his more mawkish scores for Disney musicals, is in a folksier vein, drawn from North country ballads and protest songs. And undercurrents of anxiety, wistfulness and melancholy run through the most tuneful pieces.
This show makes sure that we always keep in mind the grittiness and despair of the society that produced Billy, so that the poetry of his dancing seems all the more startling and inexplicable. Mr. Darling’s surreal blending of Mrs. Wilkinson’s dance class with a clash between miners and police is one of the freshest, most exciting uses of narrative dance I’ve seen in years. And until the finale (which is a tad overdone), he rations his big, knock-’em-dead sequences. “Billy Elliot,” you see, isn’t a dance show; it’s about why people need dance.
The performances, for the most part, are broader than they were in London, with more mugging and heart-tugging stickiness. But the two most essential portrayals — that of Ms. Gwynne and Mr. Alvarez — were spot-on the night I saw the show. Hard-shelled and all too wary of the limits of her life, Ms. Gwynne’s Mrs. Wilkinson perfectly embodies the tricky balance of sweet and salty the show requires.
And Mr. Alvarez, a natural lyrical dancer, exudes just the right air of conviction and perplexity. This Billy can’t articulate his need for dance, but he understands the potency and worth of his emotions. You always feel his ambivalence and, in the final scenes, his confounded sense of the privilege — and guilt — in entering another realm.
For everyone else in the play, like most of us in the audience, the transcendence of dance is something to be sampled, falteringly and only occasionally, rather than lived. Billy’s grandmother sings of her youthful nights on the dance floor: “It was bliss for an hour or so/But then they called time to go/And in the morning we were sober.”
“Billy Elliot” never doubts that it’s the sobriety that endures in life. Which makes those intoxicating, fleet-footed flashes of art, where leaden bodies fly and discord turns into harmony, all the more to be cherished.
The producers of Billy Elliot: The Musical (* * * out of four) must be pinching themselves.
Sure, this adaptation of the 2000 film about a coal miner's son struggling to realize his dreams of ballet glory is already an established hit in London. There, its plot — set in Northern England in the 1980s, when those in Billy's dad's line of work were doing battle with Margaret Thatcher — resonated with audiences accustomed to a more rigid class structure and thus less likely to take social mobility for granted.
But the show arrives on Broadway at a time when Americans are just as primed for its feel-good populism. In a period of economic turmoil, after a presidential campaign marked on both sides by a defiant hopefulness, Billy Elliot feels very much in sync with the mood in the nation today.
Mind you, the working-class types on display at the Imperial Theatre, where the musical opened Thursday, are obviously not from our side of the Atlantic — their thick Geordie accents occasionally threaten to bury the dialogue.
Luckily, neither original screenwriter Lee Hall's libretto nor the lyrics he wrote to accompany Elton John's unapologetically sentimental score require us to hear every word. The characters are drawn in broad strokes, with good humor but little nuance; their function is more to serve a larger message than to relay compelling idiosyncrasies.
That includes Billy, played at this preview by David Alvarez, a 14-year-old with the face of a sad angel. (Trent Kowalik, 13, and Kiril Kulish, 14, also alternate in the title role.) His beloved mum is dead, and Dad, a macho type, can't abide Billy's artistic ambitions. Even if you haven't seen the film, you'll have a pretty good idea early on of how this tale ends, and what ideals it promotes.
Those ideals — tolerance, empathy, individual expression — are noble ones, and director Stephen Daldry and his company infuse them with irresistible heart. As Billy's father, Gregory Jbara finds moving moments in a predictable evolution. Carole Shelley and Haydn Gwynne add sass as Billy's feisty grandmother and feistier dance teacher.
But Billy Elliot shines brightest when its younger cast members are center stage, particularly when they're on their toes. A few production numbers lean too heavily on cute shtick — there are dancing dresses and an enormous Thatcher puppet that may scare the kids — but Peter Darling's choreography makes the raw, restless exuberance of youth accessible to all.
In one sequence, Billy imagines and shadows an older version of himself, and both leap across the stage as the rapturous strains of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake swell around them. And for a few moments — no matter where you're from — it's impossible to not be transported by this kid's amazing grace.
Three-and-a-half years may seem a long time for an instantaneous London smash like "Billy Elliot: The Musical" to cross the Atlantic, but the delay looks to have played serendipitously into the producers' hands. With unemployment figures soaring and the economy in the dumps, the zeitgeist could hardly be more attuned to the stirring story of a Northern England miner's son liberated from bleak reality by his passion for ballet. But even without that happy accident of timing, American audiences would have no trouble connecting with the universal sentiment of this bittersweet dual celebration of community and individuality.
High among the strengths of this big-hearted show is the success of director Stephen Daldry and writer-lyricist Lee Hall in infusing the story with gritty cultural specificity and an angry liberal political agenda while at the same time rendering it emotionally accessible to audiences regardless of their background or politics. Who would have guessed that a musical in which conservative economic policies deal a death blow to the working class could be such an uplifting experience?
Hall and Daldry respectively wrote and directed the 2000 film, and they stick closely to that outline. But they also take savvy advantage of the ways in which the musical form can reach beyond real-life dimensions by allowing each character's defiant inner voice to ring out in vivid self-expression, and by consistently blurring the line between hardscrabble reality and joyful, freeing fantasy.
The latter dichotomy is particularly evident in Ian MacNeil's ingenious set. The shabby walls and grimy windows of the small-town community hall or the Elliot household frequently glide away to leave the infinite possibilities of a vast empty stage, with Rick Fisher's moody lighting suddenly pierced by the magical heat of the spotlight. And Billy's attic bedroom, elevated on a revolving central tower, serves as both a visual metaphor for his airborne desires and a cage when the path of his flight is obstructed.
That dream of escape takes shape when 11-year-old Billy (David Alvarez at the performance reviewed, alternating with two other actors) stumbles into a dance class run by chain-smoking, terminally bored Mrs. Wilkinson (Haydn Gwynne). Roused by the raw potential behind the kid's unrefined moves, the teacher plants the idea in Billy of auditioning for the Royal Ballet School. But the ambitions of both mentor and protege are momentarily scuttled when Billy's widowed Dad (Gregory Jbara) and older brother Tony (Santino Fontana) step in to veto his pursuit of such an unmanly goal.
The basic plot skeleton of an underdog rescued from adversity by the purity of his artistic pursuit is a familiar one, but it's given integrity here by the rich, melancholy textures of Hall's cultural and political backdrop.
The story takes place in 1984 against the bitter, yearlong British National Union of Mineworkers strike that resulted from Margaret Thatcher's bid to close the pits. That grounds the resistance of Billy's father and brother -- both striking miners struggling to feed the family -- not just in macho objections but in the pathos of real burdens and fears. And when they do come around and help nurture Billy's dream, their support carries the poignant realization that there's nothing to keep him where he is; their way of life is threatened and their town is dying.
The simultaneous surge of elation and sorrow that characterizes the show is nowhere more effective than in the wrenching image of the defeated miners descending into the ground, their pit helmets throwing blinding beams of light into the audience, as Billy ascends to a more hopeful future. The musical's sentiments are big and unabashed but rooted deep in the drama and never crude.
Billy's transformative passion is also deftly fueled by other characters. These include his dotty Grandma (played with a lovely faded twinkle by Carole Shelley), singing wistfully in "We'd Go Dancing" of the drunken, abusive husband who turned into Fred Astaire on the dance floor; Gwynne's sweetly sour Mrs. Wilkinson, aware she's a second-rate teacher yet not too jaded to further someone else's chance to be exceptional; and Billy's friend Michael (delightful scene-stealer Frank Dolce), a budding gay boy with an unapologetic penchant for cross-dressing. The unembarrassed handling of this character and his tender relationship with straight Billy is one of the show's many beguiling pleasures.
Elton John's songs are more often serviceable than memorable, and the ballads are treacle, but there's a nice, brass-heavy Brit sound to the orchestrations that adds to the show's strong sense of place. Regardless of their quality as showtunes, almost all the significant numbers are elevated by Daldry's propulsive staging into buoyant setpieces.
The creative team is especially adept at weaving multipart narratives into a single number. The opener, "The Stars Look Down," goes straight for the heart with its solemn anthem of troubled workers vowing to stand together, while near the end of the show, the same workers' shattered hopes and unbreakable dignity pulse through the equally powerful "Once We Were Kings."
Daldry's resourcefulness, and the wit of Peter Darling's appropriately rough-edged choreography, are best showcased in "Solidarity," in which miners, cops and Mrs. W.'s motley ballet class all overlap to depict a community in chaos. (Shifting between clumsy pirouettes and razzle-dazzle tap, the ballet girls are a riot.)
The single superb holdover from the London cast, Lycra-clad Gwynne gets to push the show's mandate in the amusing "Shine," complete with a "Chicago"-style fan dance. But she also gets lumbered with a dud in "Born to Boogie," an ill-fitting song wedged in out of nowhere simply because it was time for an uptempo comic number.
While the song's imperative furthers the central theme, the overblown whimsy of Michael's "Expressing Yourself," with giant dresses on coat hangers cavorting around the stage, also sits a little oddly. But there's such good-humored rambunctiousness in the number that it's easy to overlook any flaws.
Right down to the smallest bit part, the frazzled warmth of the performances is contagious, while Jbara and Fontana strike a moving balance between their characters' conflicted feelings and their unquestionable love for Billy.
But it's Billy himself who transports the audience and carries the show aloft. Alvarez's vocals may not be the smoothest, but he's an intense, brooding little actor who can put across a song with conviction. In the "Angry Dance" that closes act one on a dramatic high, Darling's convulsive moves seem to burst spontaneously from the performer's nimble body, slamming himself against a wall of cops' Plexiglas riot shields in one of the production's more arresting images.
He also gets the standout song, the show-stopping "Electricity." True to its title, that number and its extended dance interlude send a visceral charge through the audience that raises the spirits in the way only a musical can. That "Billy Elliot" is as much an elegy as a celebration is what makes it such a winner.