Wow! That may not be the most articulate or profound thing to say about a new Broadway musical, but it is what I found myself saying and thinking after being totally blown away while watching Billy Elliot. The new musical, which is based on a movie with the same name and has already been a big hit in London, has arrived in New York. Based on the critical response and on what I saw, it should be here for quite some time. Even with these difficult economic times, Billy Elliot looks to be a tough ticket and a big hit.
There are so many things that impressed me about Billy Elliot that I'm not sure where to start. It has a wonderful mix of warmth, humor, theatricality, and razzle-dazzle showmanship.
For those not familiar with the movie, Billy Elliot takes place in a coal mining town in northeast England in 1984-5, at the time of a bitter and prolonged miners strike, which was a reaction to the mine closures being threatened by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who opposed state-owned industry. Billy's widowed father and brother are among the miners. But the eleven-year-old Billy finds himself, mostly by accident, at Mrs. Wilkinson's ballet class for young girls. Mrs. Wilkinson sees talent and potential in the boy and, against the wishes of his father, she encourages and tutors him in his dancing.
The show beautifully meshes the harshness of the situation in the mining town and the bitter struggle of the miners with the story of Billy's emerging dancing talents. The music is by Elton John, and it is his best Broadway score, mixing rock, folk ballads, and stirring anthems, along with a few good old-fashioned Broadway melodies. The results are both tuneful and highly effective. There is a remarkable number early in the show called "Solidarity" that impressively portrays the miners battling the police while at the same time showing Billy's developing dancing skills. It is one of many highlights throughout the evening. It is followed up by "Expressing Yourself," a pure and dazzling Broadway showstopper with some nifty tap work by Billy and his cross-dressing friend, Michael.
Billy has at least three big numbers for himself. In two of them, the first act's closing "Angry Dance" and the second act's thrilling "Electricity," Billy explodes into his dance, and the results are electrifying. And there is a Swan Lake ballet dream number, danced by Billy and his grown-up self, that is just stunning and magical.
I could go on and on about the plentiful highlights of Billy Elliot, but I think you get the picture. The musical has been staged with imagination, brilliance, and style by Stephen Daldry, who also directed the movie. The exceptional choreography, mixing tap, ballet, and Broadway, is by Peter Darling. And the strong book and lyrics are the work of Lee Hall, who was an Oscar nominee for his Billy Elliot screenplay.
One of the many things I appreciated about Billy was its unpredictability. Yes, you can see some of the plot elements coming, but there also were some real surprises throughout the evening. The show packs an emotional wallop, and it moved me immensely at multiple times, often unexpectedly. But it also managed to be quite funny and produced some genuine big laughs. And the cast is superb.Three boys alternate in the role of Billy Elliot. I saw David Alvarez, and he was remarkable. He acts with sensitivity, and his dancing, both tap and ballet, are exceptional. Based on everything I have read and heard, the other Billys are also outstanding performers. While Billy is the clear star and lead performance, he gets first-rate help from his fellow cast members. Haydn Gwynne shines as Mrs. Wilkinson. She originated the role in London; Ms. Gwynne displays her character's surface toughness, along with just the right amount of warmth that lurks beneath her sometimes harsh exterior. As Billy's father, Gregory Jbara wonderfully captures the character's arc, showing both his harder side and his inner vulnerability. Jbara is particularly strong in the second act, as he grows to accept and appreciate Billy's dance skills and aspirations. The always welcome Carole Shelley has her delightful moments as Billy's grandmother, and Santino Fontana does well as Billy's strong-willed activist older brother. Finally, Frank Dolce was just terrific as Billy's cross-dressing friend Michael. Not only does he have his big show-stopping numbers, he is also given a couple touching moments.
I can't wait to see Billy Elliot again. If it holds up as well as I think it will to further viewings, I think it would be fair to say that it could prove to be my favorite new musical since Ragtime. Those are always personal judgments and opinions. Since Ragtime, there have been several new musicals that I've really loved, with Hairspray and Light in the Piazza being two that stand out. But as highly as I regard those musicals, I'm not sure if they thrilled, moved, and dazzled me quite to the degree that Billy Elliot did. It totally surpassed all my expectations and even exceeded any hype that accompanied it. That is why, when the show was over, I was almost speechless, and could only say, as I stated at the top, wow! What a great night in the theater. - James Miller
Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.