What a piece of musical-making is "Billy Elliot," the story of a boy who wants to be a dancer, set against a backdrop of striking coal miners on the edge of economic collapse in Thatcher's England. Talk about cognitive dissonance, this story is the epitome of unlikely scenarios for a boy brought up in such a culture. and yet, it succeeds brilliantly.
The musical begins with the devastating strike of 1984 which was called in an attempt to save the coal industry from the closures instigated by Margaret Thatcher. The miners were out of work for a year during which time several skirmishes with the riot police took place. Billy¹s stubborn Dad and rabble-rousing brother, Tony, are in the thick of this pugilistic atmosphere, and Billy is sent to take boxing lessons. But a funny thing happened on his way to boxing -- Billy inadvertently finds himself in a ballet class and discovers his true calling.
Knowing he'll never sell Dad and Tony on this idea, he lets himself be secretly taught by the dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson. With his prodigious talent unleashed, Billy snags an audition for the Royal Ballet. But first he must have both financial and emotional support from his family. Fat chance. Ballet dancing for boys in this culture is unthinkable, not to mention frivolous, especially when a family is struggling to survive. But somehow, even though the miners union is broken, they survive. And Billy becomes a ballet dancer.
The part of Billy Elliot is unique in the history of musical theater and requires a range of talents that include ballet, tap, singing, acting, dialect and gymnastics. After a year-long search in which 1500 boys were auditioned, the role was triple-cast because of its demanding length and stamina, and given to David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish.
Trent, reviewed here, is a Long Island teenager who originated the role in the London production and his stage presence is startling for one so young. The 13-year-old was the youngest competitor ever to win the World Irish Dancing Championship, and his extraordinary talent shows with every leap and pirouette. Trent is remarkable. But so is David Bologna who plays his good buddy, Michael. Called a "pouf" in British parlance, Michael likes to dress up in women's clothing. In his number, "Expressing Yourself," he reveals himself to be a showman and humorist of the first order, and if Trent is to be the next Nureyev, then David will be the next Hugh Jackman.
But everything about this production is remarkable. The sets are cleverly constructed to come out of the walls like drawers, or up from the floor like pop-ups, allowing them to disappear in an instant for a dance number. And oh, what dancing. The choreography is not just inventive, but thoughtful as well, integrating the incongruous stories in ways that constantly surprise. In "Solidarity," the hefty group of miners and police dance a manly dance along with a class of 10-year-old ballerinas, and the effect is staggering and thrilling.
The casting, as well, is a major tour-de-force. Those little ballerinas are all shapes and sizes, deceptively showing a whole range of talent -- from klutzy to graceful, yet they are all pros. Billy's brassy dance teacher, played tough with a soft inside by Haydn Gwynne, is a hard-drinking chain smoker who can't believe what she's discovered. In like mode is Carole Shelley, a Broadway veteran and character actor, who plays the indulgent Grandma. And her son, Dad, is portrayed by the very talented Gregory Jbara, an actor with a keen comic sense that he displayed a few years ago in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels."
This cast is A-list from both sides of the pond, playing these parts because of the excellent judgment of Lee Hall, who wrote the book for both the 2000 film and the musical, and Stephen Daldry who directed. They also had the good sense to hire Elton John to write the music, which means you finally have a Broadway score you'll want to sing. To sum up, this is the 2009 Tony winner for Best Musical.
BEN BRANTLEY for NEW YORK TIMES says, "This show both artfully anatomizes and brazenly exploits the most fundamental and enduring appeal of musicals themselves."
JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ for THE NEW YORK DAILY NEWS says, "That rare production - one that brings all the elements together and creates a fresh emotional experience."
BARABARA HOFFMAN for NEW YORK POST says, "The best gift from Britain since Harry Potter."
JOHN SIMON for BLOOMBERG says, "Really does have something for everyone, and that something is, gloriously, art."
ELYSA GARDNER for USA TODAY says, "In one sequence, Billy imagines and shadows an older version of himself, and both leap across the stage as the rapturous strains of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake swell around them. And for a few moments — no matter where you're from — it's impossible to not be transported by this kid's amazing grace. "
LINDA WINNER for NEWSDAY says, "Seriously thrilling as it is deeply lovable."
DAVID SHEWARD for BACK STAGE says"One of the smartest and most satisfying Broadway musicals in years."
ROBERT FELDBERG for THE RECORD says, "It's hard to call "Billy Elliot" a great musical – it's not unique enough for that – but you won't easily find one that's more generously entertaining."
JAQUES LE SOURD for JOURNAL NEWS says, "The Broadway season's first big musical hit."
RICHARD ZOGLIN for TIME MAGAZINE says, "Billy Elliot does almost everything a musical should do, and more."
MICHAEL KUCHWARA for ASSOCIATED PRESS says, "It's not often that a musical comes along that is as ambitious as it is emotional — and then succeeds on both counts."
DAVID ROONEY for VARIETY says, "That 'Billy Elliot' is as much an elegy as a celebration is what makes it such a winner."