The highest compliment one can pay to a film-to-stage transfer is that it doesn’t feel like a film-to-stage transfer: that it has a life, and radiance, entirely its own. So I’ve never watched Stephen Daldry’s film of Billy Elliot partly because I’ve been so enchanted by his musical of Billy Elliot, which seems to me to be perfectly lovely in-and-of-itself. Indeed, the show now at the Majestic feels wholly conceived and executed as a musical--especially Peter Darling’s outstandingly inventive choreography, which weaves the many themes of the story, including class struggle and adolescent yearning, into exciting, multi-layered dance sequences. With a book and lyrics expertly crafted by Lee Hall, it’s the smartest musical to come through San Antonio in years.
And it’s smart because it has to be smart: a tale about Thatcherism, oppression, and contemporary adolescence isn’t exactly the stuff of Legally Blonde. Nine-to-Five—another film-to-stage creation--could pretty much run its story linearly, but that’s exactly what Billy Elliott doesn’t do, particularly in its first half. If there’s a better theatrical sequence this year in SA than “Solidarity,” I’ll eat my hat: in it, three different aspects of 1980’s Britain—law, labor, and youth—collide in a dazzling ballet that breaks down the barriers between ballerinas, bobbies, and miners—even as the lyrics erect, and reinforce, the stern mental barriers of solidarity. It’s simply smashing.
The second half isn’t quite as creative as the first, but that’s because it’s even more tightly focused on the titular character, an 11-year-old dancing prodigy named Billy. The child of a fractured home, Billy seems destined to be miner like his father and brother before him; but a fortuitous accident reveals his twinkling toes even as County Durham reels from a miners’ strike against the detested Margaret Thatcher. For Billy, the Royal Ballet could be his ticket out of a life guided by economic forces beyond his—or anyone’s—control.
The physical production is strong. I noticed a few changes from the Broadway version—Billy’s bedroom no longer rises from the floor like a corkscrew—but with a large cast, and a zillion costume and scene changes, it certainly looks lavish. Thursday evening’s Billy—Kylend Hetherington—was top-notch (and an excellent hoofer); ditto for BFF Michael, played by Jacob Zelonky. (These roles rotate throughout the week.) Non-rotating roles include Leah Hocking’s marvelous Mrs. Wilkinson, the tart-tongued local dance teacher, and Rich Hebert’s enigmatically named “Dad”—a stand-in for all of County Durham’s fathers and failures. Elton John’s surprisingly versatile score encompasses tap-dancing, rock songs, ballads, and even the delightful ditty “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher,” a number less steeped in merriment than irony.
I have lots more I could write about Billy, but this is a strangely shaped tour: press night was Thursday and the show closes on Sunday, so it’s important—to me, at least--to spread the word quickly. So: yes, it’s three hours, and yes, it's about class struggle, and yes, the British have more accents than one island could conceivably produce, but, yes, it’s entertaining, and soaring, and sad. Go see it. This is what art is all about.
--Thomas "God, I Love Irony" Jenkins, Current Theater Critic.
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