Oi! Dancing boy! The barnstorming brilliance of Billy Elliot

Jun 29

Billy Elliot 1
Half Moon Bay native J.P. Viernes played the title role in Billy Elliot the Musical for the opening-night performance at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre, where the show runs through Sept. 17. Photo by Joan Marcus. Below: Faith Prince (amid the gaggle of girls) is Mrs. Wilkinson, dance teacher to Billy, played by Daniel Russell, one of five boys sharing the role. Photo by Kyle Froman

When Billy Elliot the Musical caused a sensation in London in 2005 and then swept the 2009 Tonys with 10 awards, you could be excused for wondering what all the fuss was about. Wasn’t this yet another in a seemingly endless and mostly unnecessary line of movie-into-musical transformations?

The answer in the case of Billy is a definite no. There has never been a musical quite like this before that blends politics and pathos, glitz and grim reality, corny schmaltz and genuine emotion. This is sophisticated stuff: an old-fashioned and new-fangled musical all jumbled up in one fascinating, enormously entertaining package. It’s a sad story with joyous highs and inspiring performances.

All that said, the musical is still not as good as the 2000 movie it’s based on (which is an absolute gem), but given that the movie’s creative team also worked on the musical indicates a pleasingly high level of integrity in the musical expansion of this story.

The touring version of Billy Elliot, the final show of the SHN season, opened Tuesday at the Orpheum Theatre for a three-month run, and it’s “cush,” to use the characters’ Northern England slang.

Everybody wrestles with that tricky Northern England accent (not everybody wins), but we get the picture. This small coal-mining town, Easington, is in the throes of the yearlong coal miners’ strike of 1984/85. Times are rough, and being a boy who likes ballet in this tense, hyper-masculine land makes life challenging for 11-year-old Billy.

In an effort to be a creative endeavor apart from the film, the musical blends much more of the politics into the story. Director Stephen Daldry and choreographer Peter Darling (both reprising similar duties from the movie) make bold choices in staging the sort of fairy tale coming-of-age story of Billy’s triumph through ballet with the harsh reality of the strike.

The number “Solidarity” gives us our first taste of what Daldry and Darling have up their theatrical sleeves as striking miners tussle with riot police, while little girls in tutus dance among them as they take their ballet class. It’s a clash of worlds, and it makes for powerful theater.

Daldry also allows several songs to veer from reality into razzle-dazzle musical moments. When dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (the ever-wonderful Faith Prince evoking the equally wonderful Julie Walters from the movie) tries to inspire her mini-corps de ballet by encouraging them to “Shine,” the mundane rec hall gives way to a sparkly curtain and some trusty Broadway gusto.

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Even better is when Billy (played on opening night by Half Moon Bay native J.P. Viernes, who rotates in the role with four other actors) and his best friend Michael (Griffin Birney on opening night) dress up in women’s clothes for the number “Expressing Yourself.” What starts as a lark in a bedroom becomes a full-blown production number complete with ludicrous (in the best sense) costumes of giant dresses and trousers bouncing around the stage with the boys.

The young actors who play Billy (in addition to Viernes they are Ethan Fuller, Kylend Hetherington, Lex Ishimoto and Daniel Russell) have a performance marathon to contend with in this show. In addition to the singing, the acting and the accent, they have some huge dance numbers, which really are the highlights of the show. The Act 1 closer, “Angry Dance,” expresses Billy’s rage at being told boys don’t do ballet, and the Act 2 high point is Billy’s aerial pas de deux with his older self (Maximilien A. Baud).

Young Viernes – he’s 15 – is an extraordinary dancer and a solid actor. It also doesn’t hurt that he rates pretty high on the Billy adorability scale.

The score, with music by Elton John and lyrics by Lee Hall (who also wrote the scripts for the musical and the movie), serves the story well. These aren’t songs I love hearing apart from the show, but while the story is unfolding, they’re just right. This time out, the songs that stood out for me were the melancholy “We’d Go Dancing” sung by Billy’s slightly dotty grandmother (Patti Perkins), the scathing “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher” and the heartbreaking “folk song” (sounds old but is actually new) sung by Billy’s grieving father (Rich Hebert).

There’s no escaping the fact that Billy Elliot is a deeply sad show. Sure, there’s a happy ending for Billy, but he’s the only one with the chance of a future outside of a fast-fading coal-mining town. The final images of the show are actually quite heartbreaking.

That’s probably why the creative team went to such lengths to stage the peppiest curtain call this side of the “mega mix” that concludes later productions of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The entire cast, led by Billy of course, goes through a marvelous series of dances, all performed with comic verve and high spirits. There’s even confetti and streamers, so the audience goes out on a high, perhaps forgetting the grim story that has just been told.

PARENTS PLEASE NOTE: Though there are a lot of kids in Billy Elliot the Musical, the language is rough and the volume high. It’s recommended for children 8 and older.

[bonus video]
Meet the five Billys in the touring production of Billy Elliot the Musical

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Billy Elliot the Musical continues through Sept. 17 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets start at $35. Call 888-746-1799 or visit http://shnsf.com/shows/billyelliot for information.

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