Exactly one year after its Broadway debut, “Billy Elliot,” the musical version, is still selling out weekend performances at the Imperial Theatre. The show debuted in London’s West End before making it to the American stage, where most theatergoers, I imagine, must be aware of the 2000 Stephen Daldry film from which it is adapted.
In fact, the story actually comes more alive on the stage than it did on the screen, though its original incarnation as a movie was quite good as well. With Billy (played beautifully by 15-year-old David Alvarez on the night I went) and the other dancers leaping around, in the flesh, mere yards from one’s seat, everything becomes more tangible and breathtaking.
The play embraces as its core the working class element of the story much more than the movie did. Billy’s strict father and volatile older brother are embroiled in the famous British coal miners’ strike of the 1980s. As Billy prances around in his own world, police officers and miners face off a number of times in dance scenes that are intricately choreographed and surge with feeling. Both sides are angry, and both sides feel justified, and Billy is caught in the middle, grappling with his dream of going to a ballet academy that his father, on strike, cannot afford. During one particularly memorable song, “Solidarity,” miners line up behind cops who bear long, black batons that both sides proceed to jump backwards over, limbo under, and hand off to one another behind their backs.
The play is not without its flaws. In particular, there is a scene in which Billy and his friend Michael, who reveals to Billy that he is a “pouf,” try on women’s clothing. Soon the moment becomes a raucous, elaborate song-and-dance involving giant pairs of pants and dresses. These articles of clothing, which stand at three times the height of the boys, likely contain two actors (well, maybe just one) inside each, and dance around the stage mimicking the high kicks and twirls of Billy and Michael. The entire number, thought a lot of fun for the audience, seems out of place in a story that is otherwise grounded in realism (save for the moments in which Billy speaks to his mother’s ghost). Autonomous, dancing items of clothing would belong more in a Cirque du Soleil performance. It kind of felt like an acid trip. A bit ridiculous.
There is one other slightly painful number in which Billy’s father, drunk at a town Christmas party, croons a slow English ballad, blubbering through it the whole way. The audience is presumably meant to see that he is a man racked with grief over the loss of his wife. But the “macho man” theme has been pushed too hard, and so, rather than function as a significant breaking down of his steadfast fatherly guard, the song instead feels grating and a bit awkward. Too much emotion, too sappy. Though, thankfully, this really isn’t true of the rest of the play.
Despite such minor grievances, “Billy Elliot” succeeds as an experience due chiefly to its musical numbers and its emotional core: Billy’s relationship with his dead mother. In scenes that will leave most audience members with tissues in their hands, Billy continually turns to his spectral mother (played by the lovely Leah Hocking). In these visions, she and Billy are the only characters on stage, and they sing in slow, warbling tones, vowing to love each other “forever.” Sniffles could be heard throughout the hall.
When Billy finally comes into his own as a dancer, his flights around the stage floor are that much more steeped in both triumph and sadness because the audience recalls his mother, who is gone and unable to balance out her husband’s lack of support.
The play’s refusal to compromise its clear embrace of a cliché boy-beats-the-odds-to-fulfill-his-dreams story is in the end quite charming. Even skeptics will leave the Imperial feeling uplifted, despite their attempts otherwise. The entire cast of characters, along with Billy at its center, functions perfectly in making this tearjerker a success. Really, a nice musical.