Elton John’s stage musical Billy Elliot, like the hero at its center, is a rough-around-the-edges charmer with talent and ambition to spare, one that grabs you by the scruff of your neck (and your heartstrings) and will not let go until the final curtain.
It would have been tempting to take the 2000 hit British film, about a working-class boy from Britain’s coal-mining country who defies the odds in his desire to be a ballet dancer, and Disney-fy it. In fact, the hiring of composer Elton John (whose previous work includes the Disney musicals The Lion King and Aida) might have cemented its fate as a piece of family-friendly kitsch.
But John and his collaborators took a riskier, and more creatively admirable path. Unlike the team behind Broadway?s The Full Monty (based on another film about blue-collar Britain), they didn’t transfer the story to America. Instead, they loaded the show with British slang (the Playbill includes a glossary), grounded it in the crippling coal mining strike in northern Britain in 1984-85, and laced it with references to British politicians like Michael Heseltine and, of course, Margaret Thatcher.
Nor did the creators soften the PG-13 film around the edges. The characters, particularly the under-14 kids, still curse up a storm (though the frequently uttered F-word often seems to rhyme with ”look”). And Billy?s fey friend, Michael (the charming David Bologna alternates the role with Frank Dolce), is given an elaborate production number called ”Expressing Yourself” that extols the virtues of cross-dressing, complete with dancing disembodied dresses. Or should I say frocks?
The biggest departure may be the music. In short, Billy Elliot doesn’t sound like an Elton John musical. Here, the pop giant writes in a surprising range of styles, from folk to British musical hall to protest song to classical pastiche. Yes, he tosses in some catchy tunes (”Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher”) and lovely ballads (”The Letter,” a missive from Billy’s dead mother, is particularly affecting). But for the most part, we find an artist working, and flourishing, well outside his comfort zone.
Also flourishing are the on-stage performers. Haydn Gwynne plays a suitably disillusioned ballet instructor reawakened by Billy’s talent; Gregory Jbara portrays Billy’s dad as both gruff and loving; and Carole Shelley makes a showy turn as the hero’s sweet but steely-cored grandma. Which brings us to Billy, a role shared by three youngsters (Kiril Kulish, an incredible dancer with a passable singing voice, rotates with Trent Kowalik and David Alvarez). No offense to Patti LuPone or any of the other divas of the Great White Way, but this is the single most challenging role on a Broadway stage right now. The actor must perform long, highly aerobic dance routines in nearly every other scene and only seems to slip off stage to change costumes. On the evidence so far, these young show-stoppers are nailing it.
Billy Elliot is by no means perfect. Like the original London production, it is still too long (with a seemingly endless curtain call). Some numbers are less melodically compelling (”He Could Go and He Could Shine”), and some scenes are awkwardly staged. But the ideas that work here — and there are many — work magnificently, whether it’s presenting the striking miners and the police as opposing choruses or the moving second-act pas de deux with Billy and his older self (New York City Ballet vet Stephen Hanna). In such moments, the potential of Billy Elliot, both character and show, seems both boundless and fully realized. In tough economic times that seem eerily similar to 1980s Britain, in fact, it’s easy to imagine projecting all of our recession-weary hopes onto the slender shoulders of a precociously gifted pre-teen boy. B+