On “Billy Elliot” one more time

I’m feeling really derelict in my writing responsibilities.  And some readers are understandably wearying of my inconsistency.  So to get back in the swing of things, I want to pull out some comments I made several years ago when I wrote theatre and film responses as e-mails to friends only, before the days of my own “blogging.”  (I don’t think I like that word, but what are you going to do?)

Billy Elliot is still going strong in New York, running at over 70% of seating capacity, as well it should.  It’s also played well in Chicago and Toronto, and is embarking on a national tour, arriving in December at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.  It will play throughout the world in 2012.  So it’s coming around.  I’ve often been asked my reaction to the show, certainly one of my favorite contemporary musicals, and I find it difficult to be brief in my response.  So in response, for what it’s worth, here’s an adaptation of what I wrote about the New York production in October of 2009.  It seems still very relevant.

                         Photo from the 2007 London Souvenir Program

Simply put, I doubt if there’s a better musical to be had on Broadway for making you feel so enormously glad to be alive than the extraordinarily dynamic Billy Elliot!  I was a fan of the movie (pre-Elton John), and Joan and I had seen the original London production of the musical several years ago, shortly after it opened.  But I wanted to see how such a quintessentially British story would translate on an American stage.  Secondly, I didn’t quite believe that this extraordinary set design by Ian MacNeil (son of Robert MacNeil of the MacNeil/Lehrer Report) could be replicated in New York. And finally, naïvely, I could not believe that there were sufficient 12-year-old hyper-talented dancers in the world to be doing it all over again.  Well, it’s all true.  This is one magnificent piece of theatre!

I’ll start by saying the transition to the American stage works beautifully.  Billy’s story takes place against a background of striking mining families in the Northeast of England, and essentially it is not a happy situation.  If anything, the politics get more emphasis here than in the movie, and it is a story all too many Americans will find increasingly familiar.    After a year with no pay, the infamous English 1984 miners and steel workers strike was eventually crushed by the “Iron Lady,” Maggie Thatcher, in the name of establishing “free trade.”  Tens of thousands of workers permanently lost their jobs.  American audiences are given enough background information to understand the pretty universal context, and the original strong regional dialects have been modified just enough to make them completely understandable.  The script pulls no punches.   It’s a brutal world for these families, and a dire place to eke out a life.  But sometimes, if you can find it, there is a door, a way out.  Billy’s phenomenal rise to dancing star is even more powerful given the extraordinary opposition of the Elliots’ extreme financial and moral crisis and their traditional expectations.

Elaborate sets are not really my thing.  I usually prefer saving spectacle for the movies and focusing on the people on the stage.  For me the cleverness of the designer can often interfere with the simple drama of the play.  However, such prejudices did not stop me from being surprised and amazed by this design, although modifications will certainly have to be made for touring productions.  Center stage is a 30-foot high 10’ diameter screw-tower that rotates as it emerges from the floor, piercing the simple floor-level set with Billy’s bedroom, where he spends his “interior” time.  It’s both his escape from the family and the real world, and an artistic statement of just how hard it can be to penetrate and rise above the realities which weigh us down.  The astounding mechanism requires a deep pit under the screw in order to keep it stable, and apparently New York’s Imperial theater was selected as the only one with adequate Manhattan granite under it to form its base foundation.  The whole thing is a masterpiece of engineering.  No doubt it did take some of my attention away from the drama, but it works so impressively as form and function that I couldn’t object if I wanted to, and I don’t.  MacNeil, a former student of Ming Cho Lee, also designed sets for Machinal, and An Inspector Calls,  that have hugely impressed me in the past.

The cast, which will obviously have changed by now, was uniformly superb, and the music energetic and powerful.  There are some terrific songs, several memorable, although I couldn’t find one to be whistling as I left the theatre.  And the dancing and choreography are utterly fantastic.  There is a three-dimensional, gravity-defying, balletic flying duet featuring the younger and older Billys that ranks at the top of imaginative choreography anywhere for sheer beauty.

But it’s the kids who transformed the hardest hearts in the audience to mush.  Part of their magic is just the confirmation of our universally stubborn notion that kids have the promise of a future that is brighter than the bleakness and brutality of the present.  And part of it is the quite unbelievable talent of the cast, led by Billy, who was played when I saw it by Trent Kowalik.  I understand every Billy is just as magical, each a little different.  One of them is always on standby backstage, in case the primary gets sick or has an accident.  Where do these guys come from!!?!!  (By now, there are whole troops of them, trained in academics, speech, singing, acrobatics, and a wide variety of dance forms, and ready to go!  Trent, then 14, is one of the 3 original Tony winners in the Broadway show.  Earlier he had played Billy in London in 2007, and before that he was a champion Irish step dancer.  You just don’t often see this kind of raw talent, energy and joy displayed on the professional stage, even in more polished adult dancers.  He can do it all at the same time: act, sing (convincingly and beautifully, even with a crackling adolescent voice) and dance tap, jazz, ballet, pop and step.  And at the same time he looks like he’s having the time of his life, and means every word, and his muscles aren’t cramping.  Young Keean Johnson, who played Billy’s friend Michael is equally impressive.

Manipulative?  Sure.  That old “Rocky” clichéd story of rising above the life we’re handed?  The joy of unattainable success attained?  Yes, but with grit, and charm, and energy, and truth, and a convincingly positive spirit.  Despite its R-rated salty language, when friends ask “What should I take my kids to in New York?” I don’t hesitate to answer enthusiastically, Billy Elliot!  I saw no one leave this performance without the remnants of joyful tears, unless they were discreetly hidden.  And I imagine few in the audience escaped without that hollow, drained sense in the pit of the stomach and the ache in the back of the throat that I felt.  It comes from being emotionally charged and powerfully moved, and futilely trying to hold it all in.   It’s what the theater does best.

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