New York City Theater
Imperial Theatre, Manhattan (Broadway)
Well, the big moment has arrived. “Billy Elliot” is now on the Broadway stage—a moment that American audiences have awaited with eager anticipation. And no wonder. For this musical was a smash hit in London before it arrived on these shores. And, prior to that, “Billy Elliot” was a story on film—in fact, an excellent little British film which pulled out all the emotional stops. It is nothing less than a tale of achievement—the triumph of luck, serendipity and innate creativity—the story of a boy who succeeds against all odds.
In a north England mining town, the 12-year-old Billy Elliot (whose mother has died) lives with his grandmother, father and brother (both of whom are miners). The miners are on strike, and times are hard. But Billy, while grudgingly taking boxing lessons at a local center, inadvertently sees and becomes embroiled in a girls’ ballet class. Or “bolly,” as the locals call it. He is fascinated, drawn into the proceedings. Mrs. Wilkinson, the cynical teacher who works with the clumsy girls, soon recognizes Billy’s gift. The weary Wilkinson has seen it all, but is jolted to life by Billy’s potential. Despite his father’s outrage and thorough disapproval, she secretly prepares Billy for an audition with London’s Royal Ballet School. As for Billy himself, dancing offers a magic world, a way of flying, an escape from his hopeless surroundings.
So much for the story. But what of “Billy Elliot” in musical form? What of this particular American premiere? For starters, this production has the good fortune to be directed by Stephen Daldry and choreographed by Peter Darling (both of whom were responsible for the London production and the original film). Though the musical’s book departs considerably from the original film (to its detriment), it nevertheless treats the story with sensitivity. And thanks to Daldry and Darling, the crowd scenes work beautifully, with children mounted on parents’ shoulders or racing about among the townspeople. Such scenes give off a sense of community—in particular, this British mining town community. The musical places much more emphasis on the miners’ terrible circumstances, while detracting from Billy’s own story. It is, in our view, a loss.
Yet the casting is flawless, with leads and feature players turning in memorable performances. The title role alternates among three young actors—David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik, and Kiril Kulish. Kowalik was on stage the night we attended, and we attest to his endearing and accomplished portrayal. Presumably the other two are of equal caliber. The same may be said of Frank Dolce, who plays Billy’s little pal Michael with warmth and humor. (He alternates the role with David Bologna.) In other roles, Gregory Jbara, Carole Shelley, and Santino Fontana are letter-perfect, and Haydn Gwynne gives a heart-breaking performance as Billy’s dance teacher. (Unfortunately, British accents—and particularly that of Gwynne—often make the dialogue unintelligible, but the gist of the story comes through.)
Music is pleasant, choreography and staging impeccable, and performances top-notch. Yet, this “Billy Elliot” never reaches the emotional impact of the original—far more simply executed—film of the same name.
-- Irene Backalenick
Nov. 20, 2008