Saturday, 3 October 2009

Theatre Review: Billy Elliott - The Musical, at the Imperial Theatre (New York)

Billy Elliott is a rousing musical play set in a small mining town in northern England. It is a simple story about an 11 year old boy from a tough union community, where boys are supposed to like boxing and grow up to be miners, discovering his love of dance. The story draws its endless energy from several rich societal and personal conflicts.

The inspired background to the play is Britain's bitter miner's strike of the mid-eighties, triggered when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher launched an ambitious but divisive re-engineering and privatization of the entire coal mining industry.

In Billy Elliott, the unionized miners are the victims, fighting for traditional workers' rights, the survival of their community, and their traditional way of life. Thatcher is very much the culprit, and is represented primarily by the riot police forces, squaring off against the miners with increasing frequency and heavy-handedness.

At the human scale, Billy Elliott also establishes and develops several conflicts that are just as intriguing. Billy's miner Dad (wonderfully played by Gregory Jbara) is understandably not comfortable with Billy's attraction to dance, and gets further torn between needing to support his son financially while remaining loyal to the union. Billy's hot-headed brother Tony is quick to get involved in the violence of the strike, creating tension with both his father and his brother.

At the core of the play is Billy's relationship with dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (a terrific Haydn Gwynne), which starts slowly and evolves deeply without ever descending into corny cliches. Both characters are allowed to breathe from the oxygen of reality, and to be brave without undue heroism.

There are still other rich relationships involving characters such as Michael, Billy's best friend who is discovering strong feminine tendencies, and Debbie, Mrs. Wilkinson's daughter. And finally, there is the emotionally devastating relationship between Billy and his deceased mother.

Billy Elliott, directed by Stephen Daldry, with music by Elton John, lyrics by Lee Hall and choreography by Peter Darling, achieves its success by combining all the high notes about following your dream, overcoming adversity, and being true to yourself, with terrific characters anchored by Billy's likeable 11 year old boy waking up to the variety of opportunities and conflicts that the world has to offer.

The energetic and original musical numbers, featuring individual and ensemble singing and a variety of dancing styles, are often nothing short of brilliant, and many achieve terrific emotional highs. The set design (by Ian MacNeil) and lighting are simple and perfectly effective.

Billy Elliott has won a large number of awards both in England, where it started on the West End, and on Broadway, where it dominated the 2009 Tony Awards. It deservedly enters the ranks of musical plays that will remain highly and justifiably popular and likely on tour for decades.

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