BILLY ELLIOT: some sparks of ‘electricity’

Alex Ko as Billy Elliot,

Billy Elliot, book and lyrics by Lee Hall, music by Elton John, based on the Universal Pictures/Studio Canal Film, Imperial Theatre (Broadway), 2009 Tony Award for Best Musical, open run since 10/1/08, mature language and themes.  (for those with allergies:  fog and cigarette smoke, avoid the orchestra section)

Reviewed by Becca Kidwell

Yes, it’s been a little over two years and I have just been to see Billy Elliot.  I confess, I am very hesitant to spend over $100 on a ticket to a show that I don’t know much about.  Musicals based on movies have had a mixed history (Footloose, The Wedding Singer, Carrie, Legally Blonde, The Producers, Hairspray, Nine, etc.). So, I was looking at my break in February and trying to figure out what shows I would see in New York.  There were a few I would have liked to see (Driving Miss Daisy is one, but I take issue with going to a show to see a specific actor and not being close enough to actually see the actor act), but nothing that I was jumping up and down and saying “Oo! Yes! Let me spend a quarter of my month’s salary on this!”  So, I went back to Playbill and Theatermania to look at the listings again.  After finding Freud’s Last Session, I still wanted to see a musical on Broadway–very slim pickings. had a discount for Billy Elliot; I had heard that Emily Skinner had taken over the role of Mrs. Wilkinson, and since I had been listening to the Side Show and Unsuspecting Hearts CDs almost daily–along with that little Tony Award thing for the show–I decided maybe it would be worth an eighth of my month’s salary.

It was.  Billy Elliot was not life-changing or really inspiring, but it was enjoyable.  The sense that my mind could make out after trying to matrix the show was that it is a cross between:  Les MiserablesAnnie; Bring in da’ Noise, Bring in da’ Funk; and Beauty and the Beast–which is not an easy combination to comprehend in one context.

Billy Elliot revolves around a young boy who finds a passion for ballet over boxing and the world that he lives in—Northern England during the coal miners’ strike in 1984.  Billy is sent to boxing lessons and ends up waiting to give Mrs. Wilkinson, the ballet teacher played by Emily Skinner, the keys to the hall.  As a joke, she forces Billy to join the class where she then recognizes that he has a natural talent.  Emily Skinner portrays Mrs. Wilkinson as an over-the-top personality that is both intimidating and fascinating to Billy.  Skinner’s powerful voice and presence make her the natural choice to stand up to Billy’s father; she also shows warmth underneath that gives Billy someone to look to for comfort.  Billy decides to use his boxing lesson money for ballet lessons.  Billy tries to escape into the world of dance; however, Billy cannot escape the reality of his father and brother’s strike as seen in the number “Solidarity” when the workers and the police march directly through the dance hall.

Alex Ko, as Billy (one of four boys who share the part), has natural dancing ability that can neither be denied by what the audience sees or by his biography.  In ballet, (when Billy shows that he has advanced) his lines are straight and perfected.  He uses his dance training to move from ballet to tap and modern and back to ballet again.  During the “Angry Dance”, Alex burns up the floor and matches the anger of the riot police.  Ko’s singing is somewhat weak and strained—but at his age (thirteen or so?) that is not too surprising; with the help of a vocal coach, in time, he will learn to balance and strengthen it.

Neil McCaffrey, as Billy’s friend Michael, brings needed comic relief when he shows Billy the importance of “Expressing Yourself”.  The number is entertaining and gives McCaffrey and Ko a chance to fully show off their tap skills.  The only disturbing elements were the dancing dresses at the end of the number.  They seemed out-of-place (the number itself did not), like several chorus members walked over from a Disney musical.  The children in the audience seem to like it, so I guess it is effective, but I do not believe it was necessary to make the song successful.  McCaffrey has a strong voice and natural charm that fill the entire stage.

Gregory Jbara, as Billy Elliot’s dad, goes from harsh and almost abusive to loving and self-sacrificing.  He at first throws himself and his older son Tony (played by Will Chase) into the mining strike without much thought of anything else.  Billy’s family seems to have decided to become tough and proud since Billy’s mum (played by understudy Stephanie Kurtzuba) died.  Understandably, when Mrs. Wilkinson pays attention to Billy, Billy embraces that encouragement and love that seems to be missing in his life.  When he finds out, Billy’s dad becomes angry about the ballet not only because of his son “being weak”, but also because Mrs. Wilkinson represents someone from the middle-class trying to interfere with his life.  While Mrs. Wilkinson stands her ground against Billy’s dad, it is not until Billy’s dad sees his son dancing that he realizes that Mrs. Wilkinson might have truly been helping Billy; his dad sees Billy’s talent and passion, gives up his own hopes and dreams–even to the point of becoming a scab–to give his son a chance to audition.  Here again, the town takes care of the family by pooling their money together so that Billy’s father does not have to return to the mine.  Jbara balances the hardness of Billy’s dad as a proud provider with the supple nature of a loving father who wants a better life for his son.

Billy’s bedroom is the biggest distraction of the show.  The spiral staircase loft that ascends and descends from the stage floor does little other than that and does not really serve any purpose.  The only time it is really used for a long period of time was for the “Angry Dance” and that was not long.  Perhaps they should have put Billy’s bed on a wagon (like the bathroom) instead of a shaky tower?

The show ends on a poignant note that emphasizes the love and sacrifice.  However, it then loses its tone with the “Company Celebration” number, which is fun, but can also allow the audience to disregard the reality of Billy’s situation.  Overall, the show was a lovely, big production musical–not as good as Les Miserables or Wicked, but a solid, well-constructed production.  TNETG. 1/22/11.

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