Written by: Dan Mason
I have a confession to make. Although I’ve taken a half-dozen theatre trips to New York since Billy Elliot opened in 2009, I have never actually seen the show until last weekend. Despite being a ten time Tony winner, including best musical, I was never ever to bring myself to purchase tickets, a resistance that I partially chalk up to the fact I was not a fan the movie from 2000. The 2009 Tony performance of out-of-context dance numbers didn’t make me any more interested, nor did the fact that the soundtrack, at least to my ears, seemed rather pedestrian.
Perhaps these are reasons that the tour has been a tough sell on the road, causing the current production at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre to shutter a month earlier than expected. Chatter among people “in the know” suggest that the costly production (The Broadway version was capitalized around $16 million), is set to be gutted, with everything scaled down, including the pay of the huge cast.
However, don’t let the box office struggle fool you. Billy Elliot is a show that deserves to be seen, led by an extraordinary cast that simultaneously tells the story of escape through self-expression while showing the bleak prospects of a community under economic duress during Great Britain’s mining strike in the 1980’s. In fact, some might suggest that at its core, this is a show that is still relevant to a generation facing ever-growing uncertainty about its financial future.
In a cast full of standouts, no star shines brighter than Tony winner Faith Prince (Guys & Dolls, A Catered Affair) as dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson. As the tough talking head of a second-rate dance studio, she exudes just the right amount of warmth and charm, and makes the production that much better just by her mere presence. Rich Hebert gives a moving performance as the conflicted father (a role that garnered a best actor Tony for Gregory Jbarra). As the brother, Jeff Kready’s intensity is almost too much, making it hard to believe his soft-hearted turn later in the second act, but he holds his own with this cast. At this performance, Jacob Zelonky played the role of cross dressing, best friend, Michael. His first act number, “Expressing Yourself”, is a comic highlight, and one of the only numbers that make you feel like you are listening to a score by Elton John. At Saturday’s show, Billy was played capably by Ethan Fuller, whose dancing skills are every bit as spectacular as are required for the role, even if his singing was less expressive.
The show is beautifully directed by Stephen Daldry, who juxtaposes the “art” and the “reality” of these characters in stunning ways, most notably during “Solidarity”, where Mrs. Wilkinson teaches Billy the basics of dance while the country is engulfed in near riots. I was also impressed with the use of movable fences on the stage that show the journey of the miners who chose to break the strike in real-time. Rick Fisher’s lighting designs works heavily in silhouette, and are spectacular to watch during some of Billy’s solo dances.
The only problems I had with Billy Elliot were in the script itself. At an inflated running time of three hours, there is a lot of exposition to digest, and many of the audience members at intermission were still trying wrap their heads around the back story. In fact, located throughout the lobby are huge posters that give a narrative background on England socioeconomic situation in 1984, a clear sign that producers are aware of just how much info the audience is asked to digest.
Sadly, the historical exposition leaves less time to develop the relationships within the family. The book gives us more insight into the back story of the grandmother (through the rather unnecessary act one song “We’d Go Dancing”) than it does of fleshing out the relationships between Billy, his father, and brother. The Elton John score is less pop infused than his other Broadway work, drawing more from British folk music. You won’t leave the theater humming any of the songs from the show,
Yet, despite some of the shows deficiencies, the show doesn’t suffer. The cast is so strong that they color in the places where the script fails them and create subtext where it might not really exist. The passion of the performers alone is reason enough to see Billy Elliot before it closes on August 21.