Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Review: "Billy Elliot the Musical" is Wonderful

"Billy Elliot the Musical." Photo by Kyle Froman
Ty Forhan (Billy), Leah Hocking (Mrs. Wilkinson)
and Annelise Ritacca (Ballet Girl)
in “Billy Elliot the Musical.”
Photo credit: Photo by Kyle Froman
I arrived at Billy Elliot the Musical not sure what to expect.  As a long-time fan of the film, I could easily understand how dance might be incorporated into a musical production, but my brain didn't quite know what do about everything else.  The story of Billy Elliot is a complex one.  It is not only about an 11-year-old boy who discovers a love and passion for ballet.  He is also the son of a widowed miner in a small town during a miners' strike; his father has no real understanding of the workings of the ballet.  How then would this story unfold on stage?  How would it all fit?  The answer is that these elements all come together perfectly and Billy Elliot the Musical is wonderful.

The show successfully balances the tension of its coming-of-age storyline about a boy who wants to dance and the roughness of adults who are struggling in the face of a miners strike (there are a lot of jokes about Margaret Thatcher).  The elegance of dance and the innocence of dreams comes head-to-head with the gruffness of the mining profession and the stark negativity of adult life and decisions that seem worlds apart from childhood dreams.  Often both these elements are combined for rich and complex numbers with the full ensemble ("Solidarity", "Angry Dance") that get right to the heart of the tension. 

But among the ensembles are more intimate moments of song and dance, that touch on Billy's memory of his mother ("Dear Billy") and how dancing makes him feel ("Electricity").  My favorite number is when we get to see Billy's aspiration to be a grown-up dancer unfold in his imagination.  We see him and and his envisioned older self performing to "Swan Lake".  This moment is breathtaking.   

At the same time, the show is very amusing with baudy jokes often being thrown and amusing dance numbers featuring the show's very talented cast of young performers ("Shine").  My favorite among these is a brilliant tap dancing number featuring Billy's friend Michael who enjoys dressing in girls clothing ("Expressing Yourself"), one of the number of references that support the show's overall message of accepting people for who they are and being able to be who you dream to be.

The production features a terrific and amazing cast of performers who seem to be able to do it all, including the show's many young performers. Ty Forhan, who portrayed Billy during opening night, is exceptionally talented as a singer and dancer.  But while the title character is a focal point of the production, the show would be nowhere without the actors in its ensemble that bring it all together.  It is this entire production that will make you leave the theatre inspired to follow your dreams.

Although the show has many exceptional and talented child performers, it is worth noting that Billy Elliot the Musical should not be seen as a children's musical.  The conflicts and struggles of the adult characters (and their free use of language) are not taken lightly and are an important part of what makes this show successful.  This should be taken as a note to parents deciding on the appropriate age to take their children, but also as a note to adults to not dismiss the show simply because the title character is 11 years-old.

Billy Elliot the Musical runs until May 13, 2012 at The Pantages Theatre.
-Charity Tran

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