New York City Theater
Imperial Theater, Broadway
Along about the middle of “What’s That Smell,” which had a mercifully brief run, a purposely poor songwriter laments about “two ghastly epidemics: AIDS and the British takeover of the American musical.” The joke would be more apropos if it weren’t for a British musical so terrific it makes it into the pantheon of a classic. That would be “Billy Elliot,” the electrifying West End phenomenon that opened on Broadway for what, hopefully, will be a long spell.
Based, on the wonderful British film of the same name, the show is so bloody brilliant that audiences could see it again and again and get something different from it each time. The story of a pre-teen from a northern England coal-mining district who wants nothing more than to dance has been given an enlarged context in its journey from screen to stage.
For some, that will come at a price. In the theater, the focus is as much on the devastating anti-government miner’s strike of 1984 as it is on Billy. Yet, despite their hardscrabble existence, all have an inner desire to express themselves through art. All, that is, except the “Iron Lady” Prime Minister who gets a pie-in-the-face dose of hatred. (“We all sing together in one breath / Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher / We all celebrate today / Cos it’s one day closer to your death.”)
As you can quickly gather, this is no Disney kiddie show. But acerbic, even foul-mouthed as it is, it’s also sentimental, funny, elegant, lovely, touching and altogether wonderful. It will lift spirits as much as it lifts bodies. For this is a work about expressing oneself, about the power of art, about escape, about forgetting the past, about choosing life over death, about community. (“The ground is empty / And cold as hell / But we all go together / When we go.”)
With book and lyrics by the film’s writer, Lee Hall, and gutsy direction by Stephen Daldry, who also directed the movie, the work’s pedigree is unquestioned. Like all great musicals, “Billy Elliot” sets its interior conflicts against a larger social culture clash.
What prevents the piece from quite making it to the level of “West Side Story” or “South Pacific” is Elton John’s biting but rarely inspiring music. But Peter Darling’s choreography soars, from break dancing to tap to, of course, ballet. The young men who alternate in the title role are all superb, as is the entire cast.
With a striking dancing and singing chorus, “Billy Elliot” proves there’s an artist somewhere in everyone.
--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 26, 2008