Billy Elliott: The Musical
When I saw the movie "Billy Elliot" some years ago I thought it was a delightful film. I was skeptical about how it would translate to the stage.
Much to my relief, I can now report that the stage show "Billy Elliot: The Musical" is a triumph. I was completely captivated by it. The symbolism, the atypical subject matter, Elton John's songs -- they all work wonderfully together.
"Billy Elliot" is not your typical musical about gorgeous people in beautiful clothes dancing gracefully. It's about working-class Englishmen and women who have lives of hardship. It's set in a coal-mining town. I was glad to see the production at the Fox included some actors who were lumpy and overweight, unattractive, even graceless. The words coming out of their mouths are often profanity. The sets are drab. The costumes [the time period is 1984] are grubby. There's a lot of yelling.
The show is as much about the lives of coal miners as it is about the life of a talented little boy.
Billy himself is a child living in a home where his mother has died and there is little love or warmth. He is sent down to the local gym to learn boxing, a manly sport his father heartily approves. The dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, drafts him into her ballet class, and Billy is transformed.
The lessons are not without bumps, though. Mrs. Wilkinson is not easy on Billy, or compassionate, not until she has gotten to know him and sees his longing for his mother.
All the characters in "Billy Elliot" are an unsentimental lot. Billy's grandmother, who hoards food and isn't always cognizant of reality, has a show stopping number in Act I called "We'd Go Dancing," where she explains that her drunken, abusive husband was only tolerable when they went out dancing. As she rhapsodizes about those times on the dance floor, she becomes almost young again.
Then she punctuates each verse with the line that goes something like "And the next morning we were SOBER" -- which is funny and heartbreaking at the same time. What Billy sees, though, is a woman transformed by dance. It's a way to escape the mundane, poverty-filled life he sees all around him. It's freedom.
The staging of this show is anything but boring. Fog, giant puppets, a "disco" curtain that shimmers like tinsel -- all transform the drabness. I was particularly fascinated by the use of straight, wooden chairs in this show. The chairs are always onstage, and are often part of the choreography.
Characters lift them, put them down, sit briefly, move them. At one point, Billy has a dance with one of them, to the music of "Swan Lake," and a mundane piece of furniture becomes a spinning top, mesmerizing, much like Billy is transformed through dance. The chairs are metaphorical, of course.
The fact that Billy and his friend Michael are not typical of the children of coal miners is handled sensitively. Michael likes to wear ladies' clothing. His fascination with it is not denigrated, nor is his crush on Billy exploited in any way.
Michael is an ordinary boy who has found an outlet for his creativity and escaped the macho atmosphere of the town. The number "Expressing Yourself" shows the two boys dancing with some life-sized folks wearing women's clothing but looking very toy-like. It's innovative and fun to watch.
There are a few other interesting things to note about the production. I was amazed to read in the program that all the actors in the show are American. The English accents sound very authentic. I felt like the show was a bit too long, at three hours, but I can't think of any number worth cutting.
All the musical numbers express important plot points, so by the end of the play you feel like a part of the town. The child who played Billy the night I was there was clearly Asian, but he did a wonderful job in a very demanding role.
There is one number of Billy dancing "Swan Lake" (as mentioned above, it starts with chair-spinning) that shows an older dancer, presumably Billy's fantasy of being a real ballet dancer. I love the symbolism of that number, and the "flying" Billy does. It's literally his dream to fly out of that place.
Although "Billy Elliot" is quintessentially an English story, I believe it still resonates with American audiences. Everyone can identify with feeling like an outsider and missing someone you love who has died. The universal themes and rich symbolism of this musical make it a triumph.
"Billy Elliot: The Musical" runs through March 18 at the Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree Street NE in Atlanta. For info or tickets call 404-881-2100 or visit http://foxtheatre.org/