Ballet Masters

Photo: David Schneinmann

The movie Billy Elliot, directed by Stephen Daldry from a screenplay by Lee Hall, felt like the mutt offspring of a movie musical, a music video, and a sober BBC social melodrama—a hybridization that functioned as fine entertainment, if not the trenchant commentary its makers were attempting. Billy Elliot: The Musical, also directed by Daldry and with a libretto by Hall, is similarly crossbred: It wants badly to be a barefoot, bare-knuckled dance-play—and at its best, it is—but it genuflects obsessively to the most flat-footed Broadway conventions, tripping itself up at every turn. Without the vigor of its young stars and the pure propulsion of Peter Darling’s choreography, this newest Elton John–powered machine might have tour jêté’d listlessly into a ditch. But the show stays on its feet, sometimes just barely, and will no doubt bring many audiences to theirs.

The story, which Hall hasn’t significantly altered from his screenplay, practically guarantees the warming of all vulnerable hearts: Billy (David Alvarez on the night I attended; he rotates with Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish) is the 11-year-old son of a widowed coal miner (Gregory Jbara) in Thatcher-era northern England. As the Iron Lady steadily crushes the national miners’ strike—and his father’s future along with it—Billy is surprised to discover within himself a luminous genius for, of all things, ballet. Through dance, he channels both his own adolescent frustrations and the pent-up energies of the picketing Geordies, who are marching, with slowly dawning awareness, into the teeth of enforced obsolescence. But Billy’s father and his even more bumptious brother (Santino Fontana) are horrified to learn of the kid’s covert hoofing—ballet being the domain of tutu-clad “poofs” and their effete audience—and cling to the last remaining thread of their working-class pride: defensive, stiff-necked masculinity. (I won’t reveal the ending, but know that, despite its real-world backdrop, the show is set in the world of fable à la The Full Monty.)

In the film, Daldry and Hall kept treacle and cant to a minimum by relaxing their grip: The pungent script telegraphed very little and allowed Billy’s outbursts of pirouetting to pop against a flat, blighted background. (That went a long way toward making sure it didn’t turn into a Python sketch: Coal miner’s son wants to do ballet.) But onstage, this same creative team apparently feels liberated, or perhaps obligated, to amp up the tale’s inherent camp. Billy’s fumbling, ambiguous scene with a young cross-dressing friend (Frank Dolce, rotating with David Bologna) is spun into what can only be described as a Big Gay Production Number (“Expressing Yourself”), a daffy, pastel celebration of fearless self-possession that I had trouble accepting from a preteen (through no fault of Dolce’s—the kid practically erupts with star quality). Suffice it to say that the song concludes with a dancing phalanx of giant dresses and a looming pair of massive trousers that will haunt my dreams forever.

Giant scary pants aside, why does this number even exist? Because, according to the official musical-theater handbook, it must: We’ve watched a strike unfold and squalor and melancholy abound. Time for a funny, high-energy antidote, right? This one is nicely engineered, brilliantly performed—and, I’m afraid, all wrong. It has the unintended effect of making Billy’s extraordinary, incongruous, and inconvenient uniqueness a little more ordinary, congruous, and convenient: What does it mean for a coal miner’s son to dance ballet in a world riddled with musical-theater clichés? There’s some wobbliness in the show’s basic carpentry, too. Hall, a first-time book writer, has produced a flabby script with long, loose stretches of chattery dialogue, resulting in a nearly three-hour running time. His lyrics have a modular, wait-for-the-rhyme quality. (“The economic infrastructure / Must be swept away / To make way for business parks / And lower rates of pay.” Yipes.) And while Sir Elton’s very basic score, with its distinct echoes of A Chorus Line and Fame, has a few gravity-defying moments (the snappy “Solidarity” and Billy’s “Electricity” being the standouts), it’s more a delivery mechanism than a musical statement.

Luckily, what’s ultimately delivered is more than the sum of the show’s very conventional parts. This is due entirely to the youngest stars, who furnish its most natural and ecstatic moments and paper over its egregious flaws. From the prickly student ballerinas to Billy’s wee mates, there’s nary a weak spot to be found. Alvarez plays Billy close to the vest—no limpid-eyed importuning—but every time he explodes into one of Darling’s dance numbers, his rawboned, agitated grace punches a little-boy-shaped hole in the world. Should Billy Elliot have been conceived as a kind of narrative dance concert, like Contact? Now that would have been different—apparently a little too different, even for a show about heroically inconvenient uniqueness.

See Also
What the Young Stars Think of Playing Billy

Billy Elliot: The Musical
Book and lyrics by Lee Hall; Music by Elton John.
Imperial Theatre.

Ballet Masters