Friday, January 30, 2009

Dance Dance Revolution - Billy Elliot - Musical Review

Billy Elliot - Imperial Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music by Elton John, Book and Lyrics by Lee Hall, Directed by Stephen Daldry, Choreographed by Peter Darling

Well, it doesn't really matter what I say or how late this review is, it's going to run for a long time on Broadway, recession or no recession. And considering the subject matter and the ultimate feelgood aspect of the show, is probably exactly what audiences are looking for in these bleak economic times.

After seeing the original cast in London a few years back, I returned last fall to see the new Broadway transfer with the great Hadyn Gwynne crossing the Atlantic to reprise her role as Mrs. Wilkinson, the crass small town ballet teacher that begins Billy Elliot's self discovery of his artistic side.

For the few of you who haven't seen the amazing movie this musical is based on, Billy Elliot follows a boy in a poor mining town in England as he discovers he prefers ballet over boxing, all while his father and brother are striking with the unions over their coal mining jobs, all during the 80's Margaret Thatcher era.

The brilliance of the musical is that it nicely mixes the two worlds, of Billy's ballet dreams, and the realistic union struggles, and shows them clashing while emanating from the same core problem of living in a downward town on the brink of becoming obsolete. The musical plays the political strife of the era against a young boys hopes for his future in a very universal and relatable story but set in a very specifically British setting.

Like the movie, it's a feelgood show that still touches on realistic problems (what British movies seem to do best) and Lee Hall and Stephen Daldry, who made the film, are back in the musical adaptation, now with Elton John writing extremely British sounding music that sounds less pop and more like his older classic stuff.

It all can be powerfully moving, with some terrific scenes that mix in ballet dancing with striking miners and police barricades (in "Solidarity") and the transfer to New York didn't lose any of its Britishisms (including keeping the song "Merry Christmas Margaret Thatcher" fully in tact). The choreography could be more innovative at times but still has some unique moments and is serviceable to the tale.

Hadyn Gwynne (above) is superb and pretty much a shoo-in for a Tony Award. She somehow mixes her acerbic attitude with hints of motherly concern all underneath a jaded woman past her prime and makes the role soar with humour and pathos.

Gregory Jbara (above with Alvarez as Billy) plays Billy's gruff father and creates a slightly softer more loving role than that of the movie or the London version of the musical. He's transition from angered to understanding father seems more believable since he seemed more angry out of his true beliefs that his way was better for Billy. When he realizes his errors, his curiosity into the ballet world is sweet and honest.

Santino Fontana as Billy's brother Tony, Joel Hatch as George and the other coal miners ensemble are a strong backup. The little girl ballerina's are adorable. Carole Shelley is charming as Grandma. Erin Whyland is great in the small hilarious role of Debbie (Mrs. Wilkinson's daughter).

Meanwhile, the big central (and extremely demanding) role of young Billy is played by a rotating cast of three actors. David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik, and Kiril Kulish all play Billy on different days (but it isn't announced until just prior to the shows start) and each of them apparently have their own special qualities. I happened to get David Alvarez (above, from Montreal), who was the opening night Billy, and his strength is in his ballet skills, and his dancing was spectacular. His singing was good but he sounded slightly tired that night which is still understandable for a role that requires the young teen (the character is supposed to be around 11-13) to be on stage almost for the entire show. I had an AMAZING Billy in London (James Lomas) who danced, acted and sang so amazingly so it was a hard memory to follow, but Alvarez did a comprable job in a role that is difficult but hard not to be winning.

Billy is partnered with his best friend Michael, also played by rotating actors Frank Dolce and David Bologna, and it's a fun character to play that can't lose. Michael, if you remember from the film, is Billy's more flamboyant friend, which gives them a scene where they get to dress up in heels and girls dresses. In the one major surreal and cheesy move, their big musical number ("Expressing Yourself") turns into a big Broadway razzle dazzle number with giant dancing dresses that feels extremely odd and out of place (it's a WTF is this? moment) with the rest of the more somber and darker tone of the musical.

The songs work well within the show, though overall, some songs are stronger than others (my faves are probably "The Stars Look Down", "Solidarity" and "Electricity") and you tend to forgot some of the other middle numbers, so it's not the most perfect musical, but it all comes together on stage in a wonderful package that mixes a personal intimate story with larger social themes in an entertaining musical. There are definite flaws in the show but it can be easily overlooked as the power of the uplifting message in the show and the winning cast will shine through.

As for ticket advice, the $41.50 tickets at the Rear Mezz are actually really good for the price, as the theatre is wide but not that deep, so even the farthest row from the stage is relatively close (by Broadway theatre standards). There is currently a student rush ($40, 2 per ID, at box office 2 hours before the show on Tue., Wed. and Thur. only) but apparently they are the obstructed view tickets (usually $80) that are worse than the $41.50 tickets.

Vance at


Esther said...

Hey Vance,
Terrific review, as usual. I really hope Haydn Gwynne gets the Tony. She was awesome and came close to stealing the show for me - at least when Billy wasn't dancing. I think Billy Elliot even lost a bit of its spark when she was offstage. And I agree about Gregory Jbara, it was wonderful to see his transformation. He really handled it nicely. I saw Trent Kowalik as Billy and he really was sweet, a great dancer. I'd love to see him singing and dancing on stage again when he's all grown up!

Anonymous said...

Minor correction: Kiril Kulish performed the first preview night; David Alvarez performed for NY critics' press night; Trent Kowalik performed opening night.