No doubt audiences will come to see some dancing, but they’ll walk away remembering the story. Billy Elliot: The Musical is set in the grim backdrop of Britain’s 1984 coal miners’ strike, so it’s not your typical musical kingdom. The realism of the set itself heightens the severity of the play. Margaret Thatcher is the closest the show comes to a real villain, though (she is depicted only in grotesque puppet form). The focus for these characters then is on the struggle within themselves. Some shows give you a little hope and some shows make hope wear ballet shoes. Under it all is not only the familiar lesson that art can save us, but the truth behind every such aphorism, that it is only true because we are capable of saving ourselves.
A now familiar tale ever since the honored 2000 film, the play is the story of a boy who thwarts the limitations of his provincial life and finds his passion for ballet. Perhaps there is no premise as classic as the impossible victory. Nothing emotionally convinces quite the same as the rhapsodic rise of the underdog. The history of Billy Elliot: The Musical might itself be called just that. The dancing show has triumphed over the U.K., Australia and on Broadway, where the production was nominated for 15 Tonys, tying with The Producers for the most nominations ever received by a Broadway play. It won 10, by the way, including for Best Leading Actor in a Musical, which all three of the boys in the original cast won jointly.
Disaster, constriction and depravity do not necessarily lift for these characters once the music begins, but generally, the musical allows them to, rather than forcing relief, as many a musical before it has inadvertently done. All of the children actors are impressive, considering the rigors of a road show like this one. Especially impressive is the young man who took the brunt of the theatrical weight for the evening, Noah Parets (he is, as always with this show, one of three young men who share the role). His Billy feels true to the boyish nature of the character (basically, he is a real boy who loves to dance – nothing more complex is needed).
The honesty of these characters pervades. This sort of realist musical is my secret favorite, though they are all too rare – singing shows that don’t win you over with the singing, but with the story itself.
Having a hard time with his boxing lessons, Billy Elliot happens upon a dance class after a grueling work over in gloves. Mrs. Wilkinson, played by the pretty wonderful Janet Dickinson, a gritty, chain-smoking ballet teacher of appropriately underwhelming proportions, convinces the boy to attend her class regularly. As time goes by, his talent moves her to set-up an audition with the Royal Ballet Company.
Among the best scenes of the first act is a song Billy’s grandmother sings to him, “We’d Go Dancing,” about her husband during an earlier time of hardship. It shows not only the recurring truth of struggle, but also lets out all that character’s sass and grit (which is something her grandson will soon emulate). Patti Perkins as Grandma is certainly a treat. Patrick Wetzel who plays Billy’s boxing coach, Mr. Braithwaite, is another delight.
The accompanying music is fantastic. No surprise there. The incomparable Elton John created the music and Lee Hall, the writer behind the original film, wrote the book and lyrics. Peter Darling’s choreography is also wondrous at times. I particularly loved the entwining of the political backdrop of cops and picketers in several ensemble numbers. The most visually striking moments involved groups of male dancers (the strikers, a dance hall filled with only chairs and men) – the representations of masculinity and the group-think of maleness was striking in comparison to the brave little boy who chooses to don ballet shoes (or, as his friend Michael does, a tutu). Self-expression, it seems, is more powerful than even society’s expectations.
Billy Elliot: The Musical runs through Dec. 9 at Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville. Showtimes vary. For tickets, contact the box office at 479-443-5600, or visit waltonartscenter.com.
Have you seen the show yet? Let me know what you think!
Tobias writes theatre reviews for the Fayetteville Flyer. He is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts through the Arkansas Programs in Creative Writing and Translation and teaches at the University of Arkansas. He is also an associate company member with The Artist’s Laboratory Theatre. For more of Tobias’ contributions, see his author page.