Sunday, November 23, 2008

Review of "Billy Elliot--the Musical"

Every few years, if you’re lucky, a musical opens on Broadway that mesmerizes, where the sum of its parts creates a much larger whole. Billy Elliot-the Musical, the London import, is such a show. To put it simply, the musical dazzles—from the stunning dance routines to the overwhelming theatricality of the staging. Billy Elliot is one of those productions that actually deserves a standing ovation.

The musical, based on the 2000 movie, centers on a young lad in the north of England during the yearlong coal mining strike of 1984. Pushed, by his father, to take boxing lessons at the local hall Billy, instead, gravitates, inadvertently, to the ballet class run afterwards. Slowly, at first, Billy is drawn to this world where his gift for dance soon becomes apparent.

The show, like Billy himself, begins at a methodical pace. But once Billy finds his true calling, the musical bursts with a creative force that leaves the audience breathless. As with the hit London version, three youths rotate the part of Billy. In the production I attended Trent Kowalik played the part and he was, well, magnificent. Not only was his dancing awe-inspiring, but he can sing and act. For such a talented dancer he made the early scenes of awkwardness and uncertainty at the ballet studio highly believable. When Kowalik took the stage for one of the musical’s extended production numbers it was pure Broadway magic, the reason one goes to the theater, where you can attain a higher plain of entertainment.

But the production is not simply a vehicle to showcase the tremendously talented youths portraying Billy Elliot. Every element, as I stated at the beginning of this review, works in perfect harmony. First, and foremost, is Director Stephen Daldry, at the helm as he did in the acclaimed movie. Daldry, a longtime theater director, masterfully orchestras the visual tableau, whether it be an intimate moment between Billy and the harried, yet caring, dance instructor or, in collaboration with choreographer, Peter Darling, artfully integrating the dance sequences with the large ensemble on stage. Darling receives kudos for the sheer exquisiteness of his choreography—from the graceful ballet numbers to the razz-ma-tazz tap dancing. Combined with the grace and power of the performers, the choreography practically leaps from the stage.

What these men, plus the other creative forces behind Billy Elliot—the Musical have accomplished is forge a connection between the audience and cast. No small feat. We feel for the characters on stage, are aware of their bleak and difficult lives in the northern coal mining district of England. Librettist Lee Hall has done a marvelous job in translating his screenplay to the stage, instilling honest, heartfelt emotions without being overly sentimental and sappy.

The score by Elton John may be his most satisfying Broadway composition yet. Along with lyrics by Lee Hall, John has structured a series of songs that can be solemn and poignant; evoke the grittiness, urgency and intensity of the miner’s plight, and give the necessary backdrop to the rousing and playful dance numbers.

The cast is outstanding. Besides the aforementioned Trent Kowalik the standouts include Haydn Gwynne as the frazzled, but good-hearted dance instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson; Gregory Jbara as Billy’s world-weary, boisterous father; and Frank Dolce as Billy’s fun-loving and exuberant best friend, Michael.

One note about the musical—while Billy Elliot is great family fare there is some, shall we say, colorful language spouted by various players throughout the production. It should not prevent parents from taking their children, but a pre-show conversation forewarning them may be best.

Billy Elliot—the Musical, finally a Broadway musical you can stand up and cheer for.

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