Billy Elliot The Musical (at the Ordway through Oct 14) is an example of how plays, like photographs, can lose clarity and intensity the farther from the original they stray. This Billy is a remount of a remount of a Broadway version of a West End knockout. The show’s original director, Stephen Daldry, receives credit but I seriously doubt that he was involved with this mishmash. This show has lost its flash and focus.
Not that there aren’t pleasures, not the least of which is the wonderful story. The portrait of eleven year old Billy, son of a striking coal miner, stumbling into ballet class, falling in love with the art, building his skills, then auditioning for and winning a place in the Royal Ballet School is sharply drawn and affecting. That all this occurs while the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher is deliberately and cruelly dismantling the British coal industry (there are now 1,000 miners; once there were 300,000) adds punch and intensity. Billy Elliot The Musical, like the film upon which it is based, is a marvel of rich and compelling storytelling.
Moreover, many of the performances are first rate. I was especially taken with the work of Rich Hebert as Billy’s Da; his efforts to overcome deep anger and frustration and become a “ballet Dad” are moving and very funny. The journey to London for the audition is fraught and hilarious. Also excellent is the lithe and lovely Janet Dickinson as Mrs. Wilkinson, the chain-smoking ballet instructor. Painfully aware of her limitations, she is utterly dedicated to Billy’s raw talent. Patti Perkins plays Grandma with good-natured energy and zest; this more than makes up for her lack of musical prowess.
The eponymous role of Billy, however, is problematic. The program lists four young actors as Billy. The theater announces the specific casting just prior to the performance, but all four actors will play the role at some point in the week-long Ordway run. The night I saw the play, Billy was performed by Noah Parets. Parets was sweet and sported a quavering and affecting high voice. But his dancing was hit-and-miss and his acting monotonic. He was unconvincing in his quest for the Royal Ballet; he didn’t seem good enough, nor did he seem to want it enough. All in all, there was a decidedly under-rehearsed feel to Parets’s work. Other Billys may work better; your mileage may vary.
Billy Elliot has other problems, though, and they’re serious. The design: the lighting is rough, filled with pockets of darkness. The set is washed out and oddly shaped. The lengthy (3 hours) show was flatly paced. The north-of-England accents are often very hard to understand. This is especially true with the young characters, Billy and his chum Michael. The long dancing scene between Billy and Michael utilizes bizarre Las Vegas choreography, with shimmering tinsel curtains and weird faceless dancing dream figures. The audience adored this, but I found it out-of-keeping with the naturalistic feel of the story.
A difficult play to recommend. Still the story stirs (book and lyrics by Lee Hall) and much of the singing thrills (excellent music by Sir Elton John).
For more info about John Olive, please visit his website.