Just so you’re aware: The kid can dance.
That’s the most important thing to know about the tenderly and balletically effective “Billy Elliot the Musical” at Signature Theatre. Director-choreographer Matthew Gardiner steers this revival of Lee Hall and Elton John’s Tony-winning 2008 adaptation of the 2000 British movie with the kind of theatrical authority Signature audiences have come to depend on from artistic director Eric Schaeffer’s right-hand man.
And “Billy Elliot,” the story of an 11-year-old boy from northeast England coal country who prefers toe shoes to work boots, is critically reliant on the skills of the dewy preteen portraying him. Two young actors alternate in the role of Billy; on Wednesday night, it was Liam Redford pirouetting on Signature’s main stage. (The other Billy is Owen Tabaka.) As a result — and with key winning turns, too, from Nancy Anderson as Billy’s tough-love-dispensing dance teacher and Chris Genebach as Billy’s initially uncomprehending father — all is right with the show.
Mind you, “Billy Elliot” is a good musical rather than a great one. The story hews to an old formula, that of the birth and grooming of an unlikely star of humble origins, and the score by Hall and John is sweet and serves the plot well. But these elements feel as if they merely exist to dress the moments between the evening’s truly galvanizing dance interludes, virtually all of which belong to the indefatigable title character.
Young, long-limbed Liam has the lithe look of a born dancer, one with a particular gift for expressiveness with his arms — and yet with a certain rawness that suggests refinement of technique does not happen overnight. Not only that, he’s mastered the peculiar Geordie accent of the northeast of England, and he’s been schooled well by Gardiner in revealing by degrees Billy’s acquisition of ballet skills under the tutelage of Anderson’s Mrs. Wilkinson. An early scene, in which Billy reluctantly joins a class of schoolgirls and learns how to execute a pirouette, nicely distills Liam’s ability to convey Billy’s fascination with the form and the concentration required to perfect it.
From there, the chronicle of Billy’s growth as a dancer becomes mesmerizing, especially in the emotional number, with tap, that concludes Act 1, “Angry Dance,” and then in an Act 2 dream ballet. Paired with an adult male dancer, Grant Richards, playing an older version of Billy, Liam really does soar. It’s a pas de deux you wish they could have danced all night.
The tension-building counterpoint to instilling these highbrow ambitions in Billy, whom Mrs. Wilkinson is guiding to an audition with the Royal Ballet School, is a portrait of the declining fortunes of Billy’s father and his fellow coal miners. (Dance is so exotic in this part of the world that ballet is pronounced “bally.”) Set in the union-busting era of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, when the nation’s miners went on strike, “Billy Elliot” allows some of the themes of “Norma Rae” to mix in, except there is no workers’ victory at this story’s end.
The political digressions (in “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher”) and paeans to workers everywhere (“Once We Were Kings”) provide “Billy Elliot” with opportunities for some proletarian venting, but they are fleeting moments and not the musical’s most convincing.
No, it’s the coltish arms and legs gaining proficiency in the vocabulary of Nureyev and Baryshnikov that define “Billy Elliot’s” compelling core. And in the relatively close quarters of Signature’s larger theater, the Max, with an audience around three-quarters of the stage, this evolution happens close enough to feel the dancers’ passion. Set designer Jason Sherwood keeps the environment appropriately simple; a few basic set pieces roll out from behind a sky-high upstage wall.
An eight-member orchestra, conducted by Tom Vendafreddo, plays from behind the wall, and in Ryan Hickey’s sound design, there are times singers’ voices could use less competition from the band; some lyrics being sung in accent get lost. In the big supporting roles, Anderson proves to be a poignant asset, imbuing Mrs. Wilkinson with a sassiness that is tempered by an air of disappointment. Genebach locates the warmth in a dad whose lovingness is a check on his pride. And the young actresses who play the girls in Mrs. Wilkinson’s classes, starting with Vivian Poe (who alternates with Olivia McMahon) as her daughter Debbie, are each a delight.
The night, though, is Billy’s. While it might be fun to buy a two-pack and see what each of the Billys can do, on any night of “Billy Elliot” the heart leaps, for sure.
Billy Elliot the Musical, music by Elton John, book and lyrics by Lee Hall. Directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner. Music direction, Tom Vendafreddo; set, Jason Sherwood; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lighting, Amanda Zieve; sound, Ryan Hickey; production stage manager, Kerry Epstein; fight choreography, Casey Kaleba; “Angry Dance” tap choreography, Mark Orsborn; dialects, Rex Daugherty; orchestrations, Martin Koch. With Dan Manning, Catherine Flye, Jacob Thomas Anderson, Kurt Boehm, Crystal Mosser, Harrison Smith, Sean Watkinson, Solomon Parker III. About 2 hours 45 minutes. $85-$106. Through Jan. 6 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. sigtheatre.org or 703-820-9771.