Billy Elliot The Musical at the Ordway

Kylend Hetherington in Billy Elliott. Photo by Kyle Froman.

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.


4 comments for “Billy Elliot The Musical at the Ordway

  1. mike
    October 14, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    I saw Noah play Billy twice in Boston and thought he was excellent. Great acting, dancing and singing. Sorry you did not like his performance. Maybe he was having an off night.

  2. don powell
    October 14, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    After reading the previous posters, I must agree with John Olive in his assessment of this production of Billy Elliot. I did not see Noah Parets play Billy; I saw Ben Cook. You people who are chastising Olive for his words about Parets’ performance are missing a very big point….. ‘Everyone’ in the cast of a touring show are supposed to be ‘professionals’! In the performance ‘I’ saw, with Ben Cook as Billy, was ‘close’, but he didn’t cut it ‘either’. Just because an actor is 13 or 14, it does ‘not’ excuse him from delivering a professional performance!
    This ‘Billy Elliot’ is on its last legs. I have seen the show three times previously; the fourth time I expected the performance to be of the same caliber, but it was not to be. I was fortunate to see Lex Ishimoto as ‘Billy’, in two brilliant performances. The third time, ‘Billy’ was played by a boy who was ‘aging out’ of the part. Last night’s ‘Billy’ was played by Ben Cook, who, at 14, is aging out of the part as well. Ben is too big to play the part anymore.
    Janet Dickenson tries to attain the skill of her predecessor, Faith Prince, as Mrs. Wilkinson, but only halfway gets there. Rich Hebert has played ‘Dad’ in all four performances I’ve seen. In the first three, Rich was brilliant; now he’s going through the motions. The other actor I’ve seen four times in the show is Patrick Wetzel, who plays ‘Mr.Braithwaite’, and is every bit as wonderful and hysterically funny as he was the first time I saw the show. The man has found a way to keep the role fresh! Sam Poon, who played ‘Michael’, needs stage-voice lessons. His ‘loud voice’ (which happens a ‘lot’ with the part)
    is an unintelligible ‘growl’. And he delivers his lines so fast, he’s stepping on his own potential laughs.
    This entire cast needs some discipline! The dialect for most of the performance was unintelligible, and it’s not because I don’t have an ‘ear’ for it; the previous three times I’ve seen it, everyone was perfectly understandable. The little ballet girls are mediocre; they have one reaction to everything, and that is to shriek. And now, cast members have been adding their own little ‘shtick’, to get themselves noticed for a few seconds longer.
    The miner who does the bit with pouring the salt, then stuffs the whole sandwich in his mouth, overplays it, and misses most of the humor of the bit. Policemen have now added ‘picking their noses’…… just not funny, although they look like ‘they’ think they’re hysterical. Other little bits of hamming-it-up aren’t funny, they’re simply annoying.
    And where is the dance captain for this crew??? The dancing was slipshod and sloppy;
    when it came to the ensemble tap dancing, forget about it; a mess. Even the younger Billy-older Billy ballet, which at three previous viewings brought tears to my eyes, was uninspiring, but that looked to be Ben Cook’s fault; the man dancing the older Billy part was excellent; Ben Cook, dancing the younger Billy, was out of sync with the older Billy for most of the dance. Even the follow-spot operators were out of it for this number, leaving one Billy or the other in darkness.
    This production has been cut down from the previous touring show. It used to be a three-truck show and is now a one-truck show…… it shows.
    The saving grace was the orchestra. Excellent and enthusiastic players and performance. I know it’s hard to keep a show ‘fresh’ when it’s been on the road for so long, but that ‘is’ the production people and the cast’s ‘job’! If ‘I’ were the production manager, I’d call a rehearsal at 10am!

  3. Tom M.
    October 12, 2012 at 12:00 am

    Your review of Billy Elliot the Musical was remarkable in a number of respects. Not only were you alone among Twin Cities critics in finding major fault with this famous and much-honored piece of theatre. You are, as far as I can tell, the only critic anywhere in the world to find fault with the dancing of one of the young men playing Billy.

    Granted, I wasn’t there on press night. But I have seen Noah Parets dance this role. And to put it bluntly, I found him astonishing. Note perfect, in fact. So did all your fellow critics on Tuesday, as they rushed to tell their readers about the “mesmerizing” and “impressive” performance they’d just witnessed – the same performance that you found “hit-and-miss” and “unconvincing”. The Star Trib went so far as to say Noah played the role “like a Stradivarius”.

    But the real reason I had to write you was to address the way in which you dealt with this talented lad’s labour. It was done with such a casual cruelty that you have to be called on it. It’s disappointing to see someone who calls himself an actor and a playwright trash the hard work of actors without a hint of encouragement or helpful criticism … not just because we’re talking about a child here … but because from all accounts, this trashing was so unwarranted.

    But here’s the good news, Mr. Olive. You have another chance to redeem yourself. If the current rotation holds, Noah Parets will take to the Ordway stage again on Saturday afternoon. Give him another look. If you do go, I think you’ll see the Noah Parets the rest of the world is already celebrating.

    But if you don’t go … well you’ll just be another adult who feels it’s his role in life to dash the dreams of amazingly talented kids.

    And that will be sad … because it will mean that you will have utterly missed the most important lesson Billy Elliot the Musical has to offer.

  4. J. D. Maguire
    October 11, 2012 at 7:24 am

    Sir I felt that I “must” reply to your review which angered me very much. I have had the chance to see Billy Elliot the musical 25 times since 2007 when it opened in NYC. I have seen 12 different boys play the role of Billy and have seen Noah twice. I am a member of the Billy Elliot Forum and found a link to your blog-review. Here is what I posted to the forum in response to your review:

    “OK – We are all BETM fans, most of us “super-fans” and we DO love great reviews. I am sure we are always put off a bit by negative ones. I must say I am “pissed off” after reading Mr Olive’s blog review. At first he seemed to appreciate the story, the original source material, and the acting of the adult cast, but then my heart sunk and my blood pressure went up as he “trashed” Noah’s performance. He didn’t think that Noah (The American Jr Male Dancer of the year -2011- the choice of people who really know someting about ballet.) danced like he was good enough to get into the Royal Ballet School. Did he see the same exceptionally talented Noah that many of us have seen? I have seen him perform twice and was “blown away” with his dancing skills. I heard his beautiful voice and it did not “quiver”.
    I’m sorry, but I feel that his comments were “cruel” and totally off the mark. A particularly cruel comment was that he gave what he called an “under-rehearsed” performance. Clearly he knows NOTHING about dance and is amazingly ignorant about the hard work (including endless,ongoing rehearsals)that goes into playing the role of Billy. Clearly,as has been previously stated he does not like kids in main roles-I think he just does not like kids at all.
    Young performers, like the kids in BETM have all struggled to learn to deal with rejection and criticism. Its not easy. I too hope that if Noah sees that blog that he recognizes that this man does not know what he is talking about. I also hope that he knows how much the members of this Forum appreciate his remarkable talent and care about him. I know I certainly do.”

    Sir stick to reviewing someting you know something about

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