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Review: 'Billy Elliott' at the Winspear Opera House

by Jerome Weeks 10 Jun 2011 12:22 PM

The tour of ‘Billy Elliot’ is at the Winspear. The affecting film about a mining-town boy defying his father to dance has become a big, Tony-winning Broadway musical — with all the advantages and disadvantages.


  • Dallas Morning News review (subs. req.)
  • Fort Worth Star-Telegram review

It may seem surprising to hear, but there was always something fundamentally misguided about bringing the 2000 film Billy Elliot to the stage. Or, at least, in bringing it there as a conventional Broadway or West End show like the Tony Award-winning one that opened Thursday night at the Winspear in the Lexus Broadway Series.

Certainly, the story of a Northern England-mining-town boy defying his working-class father to learn to dance seems tailor-made for a theater adaptation — or perhaps a full-scale ballet. No, it’s not the welcome politics and blue-collar grit that don’t suit the stage — in fact, they’re some of what distinguishes Billy Elliot, making it more than just the latest iteration of The Tap Dance Kid.

But there’s an essential point being missed: In 1984 — just as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sets out to crush the mineworkers’ union — Billy feels like a freak from another planet. He seems to be the only boy in this Yorkshire coaltown who likes to dance, the only one who doesn’t want to learn to box, who doesn’t want to sweat in the mines with his father and brother. His fearful isolation is key: Billy develops his dancing skills in secret, fumbling after something he can only sense he needs.

So we now take this character and his situation and put them in a Broadway musical, a theatrical form in which everyone dances. Everyone dances at the drop of a toe shoe; it’s a central form of human expression here; it’s as easy as breathing. Even the clashing policemen and striking miners trip the light fantastic — and these are the same men who regularly mock ballet dancers as poufs.

It probably would have been difficult to devise a musical in which Billy is the only male character who dances — though not impossible. But by going down this road from the screen to a conventional musical comedy, the show’s logical incongruities pile up — in sometimes small but distinctly odd ways. There’s now a running joke about Billy trying to find a masculine role model, any masculine role model, to use as a defense for his dancing. And he repeatedly cites Rudolf Nureyev (who, Billy’s father points out in the joke’s punchline, is actually “as bent as a nine-pound note”).

Yet because this is a musical, the minor character of Mr. Braithwaite (the piano player in the down-at-heels dance class that Billy attends) can now dance like the dickens, just like everyone else. And no one seems to notice this. Wait a mo’, Billy, here’s a local Yorkshireman who can leap and turn. Quick, go tell your da about him.

A minor point? Well, let’s see how this tin ear for some of the story’s grim emotional context distorts another character. Only two people support Billy’s efforts: his wisecracking dance instructor (Faith Prince – left) and Billy’s classmate, Michael, a young, closeted, cross-dressing gay.

Michael thinks Billy might be like him because they share the same outsider status, the same sense of universal misunderstanding. In the film, Michael is funny but also a bit sad, even pathetic. Not because homosexuality and cross-dressing are pathetic. Michael is simply so alone, so aware of the ostracism, that his cross-dressing is almost desperate. It’s his only outlet for self-expression, yet he has to do it in complete secrecy. His connection with Billy has the same air of desperation and gratitude: He’s like Robinson Crusoe who’s found that there actually is another human being on this deserted island.

Well, you can forget all that here. Michael now is a drily funny little queen who gets the big, flamboyant, showstopping number, “Expressing Yourself” (and on opening night, Griffin Birney was a delight in the role). Rather than desperate, Michael now has a comic, small-scale air of defiance to him (“Expressing Yourself” may be incredibly splashy but it’s still done in secret).

In general, this is what director Stephen Daldry (who helmed the film version) and choreographer Peter Darling have done with Billy Elliot. They’ve made it into the kind of Broadway musical that many people will love — with bravura dancing and some stunning staging and with those welcome bits of grit and politics in its setting and sub-plot. But also with forgettable tunes from Elton John (my daughter theorized he was trying to make the show feel more period authentic by making half the numbers sound like ’80s power ballads) and with the kind of language that some parents will be surprised by. Kids dance in this show, surely it must be aimed at kids, too? Not for some parents, when the language starts with “Fat bastard” and goes fully “blue” collar after that.

But for the first act, I didn’t really feel a thing about these people. The show’s not boring — not at all. I’ve enjoyed Faith Prince onstage since seeing her in Guys and Dolls, and the role of Mrs. Wilkinson is a piece of crusty, crowd-pleasing cake for her. There’s also plenty of lively dancing and staging going on — notably a community Christmas show, complete with a giant puppet of the hated Mrs. Thatcher.

But the feeling of generic characters in an unreal situation wasn’t helped by the fact that Giuseppe Bausilio (top), who played Billy for opening night is a tremendous dancer but not much of an actor (there’s a rotating cast of five young men in the role — results may vary). It’s typical of his performance that the role’s emotional high point (the rather hamhandedly named “Angry Dance”) is more a striking display of Daldry’s ingenuity than an affecting outburst of bitter frustration.

Would a better actor have made a crucial difference? Not really. Outside of a few moving scenes involving Billy’s dad (Rich Hebert), the only moments with some real, heartstring-pulling impact were the grandmother’s memories of dancing with her dead, abusive husband (“We’d Go Dancing”) and the last one, with the defeated miners returning to work. They’re returning to an industry that Thatcher effectively gutted, and all of them sing about how they’ll go down together — as they stand in the dark, only their helmet lights on, the beams flickering across the stage.

Otherwise, this is the kind of show that when the letter finally arrives for Billy — the one either accepting or rejecting him for the Royal Ballet School — we get a series of hokey old shticks to stretch out the suspense. Family members play “keepaway” with the letter, argue over whether they should open it, how they should open it, Billy takes forever opening it — and so on and on. All this happens in a show that’s already brutally overlong (it runs three hours and doesn’t need to).

Still, there are plenty of theatergoers who love seeing talented children dance and don’t care about much else. Which I can certainly understand. One’s heart can soar with such scenes, and after all, that’s Billy Elliot‘s selling point, as is plain from the ads and poster images, a young boy’s spirit taking flight. If you are such a theatergoer, then I recommend sticking around for the inevitable ovations at the end.

Talk about milking a show’s appeal. The curtain calls are practically a third act in themselves.

  • michael grogan

    I enjoyed Billy Elliot The Musical, and found it to be worthy of it’s Tony Awards. There are so many levels of this complex show that there is no way that the show could be shortened without destroying it’s many plots and themes. Attend the show more than once and you will realize what was missed. Truly inspirational, and the best show that most people will ever see.

  • Sean

    I’m genuinely sorry to read your review. It was well written, but I’m sad that you didn’t enjoy the show. To be honest, this review feels more like someone who brought their pen and pad to the show and wrote notes instead of watching the show and letting the show impress them. I do hope you’ll give it a try outside of your job responsibilities. It’s a really wonderful and touching few hours of theatre!