Theater

'Billy Elliot' at Broadway's Imperial Theatre

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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 20, 2008

NEW YORK -- Billy's gotta dance. And you gotta see him do it.

The musical version of the much-loved 2000 movie "Billy Elliot" has arrived at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway, and when the rubber-limbed young actor playing the boy who wants to soar above his working-class troubles is executing chasses and jetes, the show moves like the wind in ballet shoes.

For this dynamic act of exertion alone, the often-invigorating "Billy Elliot" is worth the inevitable wait for tickets. The role of Billy is such an endurance test that three actors are alternating in the part. Trent Kowalik played it at the performance I attended, and if his fellow Billys-in-arms (and legs) are anywhere near his level, the Tony Awards are going to have to figure out a way to chop a trophy into thirds.

"Billy Elliot" offers other charms, particularly in the sharp ways it mingles dancing with storytelling and fills a financially frozen Northern English mining village with warmth. Peter Darling's personality-driven choreography allows ballet students to dance like ballet students -- and coal miners to dance like coal miners. And director Stephen Daldry, who like Darling and writer Lee Hall is reprising his job from the film version, manages to animate the proceedings with an up-to-the-minute showman's gift for seamless staging.

All their ministrations take "Billy Elliot" pretty far -- and sometimes, it must be noted, too far. The musical runs an overpacked three hours, which gives Billy more than ample time to show off his moves. It also encourages several run-on-at-the-mouth scenes, some overly caricatured minor performances and a curtain call so overindulgent you expect the ushers to come out and take bows.

This supersize "Billy Elliot" -- the movie ran less than two hours! -- could have used the services of a coldhearted editor. It appears that the creative team was terrified of cuts, even in some of the lesser songs in the serviceable score by composer Elton John and lyricist Hall. (Do we need giant dancing outfits appended to a song about cross-dressing? Is an earnest, dead-weight anthem, "Once We Were Kings" -- sung by the miners as they descend into the mountain -- a necessity at the tail end of a long evening?)

Those issues slightly muffle the voice of "Billy Elliot" as narrative art, but they do not diminish its achievement as a dance musical. On that count, it ranks as one of the best. Take, for instance, the manner in which Darling unites the village for the sensational first-act production number, "Solidarity." "We're proud to be working class, solidarity forever!" the coal miners sing, as schoolgirls practicing ballet wend their way through the formation, and eventually employ the singing men as their partners. Their combined effort articulates something powerful and pure about the common struggle in this stricken town.

Set in Margaret Thatcher's England in 1984, the musical tells the story of a boy who's different during a time and in a place that doesn't go in much for different. But unlike Billy's friend Michael (Frank Dolce at my performance), who has to explore the forbidden side of himself in secret, Billy's other-ness must be expressed in public. He has no choice but to come out about his passion. Ballet, he discovers, is who he is, and much of the evening concerns his run-ins -- with his decent if provincial father (the fine Gregory Jbara); short-fused brother (Santino Fontana); and even the put-out girls in the ballet school run by Mrs. Wilkinson (a sturdy Haydn Gwynne).

The backdrop is the miners' strike that puts the men out of work and Billy's motherless family in ever more dire straits. (Billy's conversations with his dead mother, played by Leah Hocking, provide touching grace notes; his contacts with his live-in grandmother, embodied with saucy joie de vivre by Carole Shelley, supplies earthier flavors.)

You're meant to feel compassion for these men of limited options. And, of course, a bit of outrage at their desire to limit Billy's. One of the teariest interludes occurs when the men finally let go of their preconceived notions and give Billy a hand.

Your deepest sympathy is to this kid who rises above it all -- literally. Daldry and Darling ensure that "Billy Elliot" gives you a surfeit of Billy on the dance floor; you lose count of the number of his solos, so intense is the musical's demand on the young actor's stamina. Perhaps Kowalik's most thrilling work comes in a duet with a principal New York City Ballet dancer, Stephen Hanna, playing Billy's older self.

Midway through the number, wires are affixed to Kowalik's harness and Hanna propels him into the air. Billy is freed for a spell from small matters and minds. And we're up there with him, a little bit closer to heaven.

Billy Elliot, music by Elton John, book and lyrics by Lee Hall. Directed by Stephen Daldry. Sets, Ian MacNeil; choreography, Peter Darling; costumes, Nicky Gillibrand; lighting, Rick Fisher; sound, Paul Arditti; orchestrations, Martin Koch; music director, David Chase. With Joel Hatch, Thommie Retter. About three hours. At Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St. Call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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