On Stage: Billy Elliot — Born to Boogie

Photo by Joan Marcus

“Don’t know. Sorta feels good. Sorta stiff and that, but once I get going, then I like, forget everything. And…sorta disappear. Sorta disappear. Like I feel a change in my whole body. And I’ve got this fire in body. I’m just there. Flyin’ like a bird. Like electricity. Yeah, like electricity.”

With heartfelt quotes like this one from a young boy describing his feelings about moving across the floor, what’s not to love about Billy Elliot: The Musical? Especially if you’re a dance fan. And probably even if you’re not…

After all, what audience member couldn’t connect with the heart-tugging story of a working class boy who finds himself through ballet?

Yeah, Billy Elliot is all that and much, much more.

Even at the most basic level, you could be content to follow the story and watch an amazing young lad (an exuberant J.P. Viernes at the performance I attended) carry a three-hour show on his tiny shoulders. But after seeing the national tour at the Benedum Center here in Pittsburgh, I came to realize that this musical was about as tight as they come.

Photo by Kyle Froman

Billy throws a lot of theatrical balls into the air and juggles them magnificently. There are the two major themes, certainly strange bedfellows, of a billowing ballet story set against the 1984 miner’s strike that crippled England.

It provides for plenty of contrast in the transitions, moving from the deep-seated passion surrounding unions to the deep-seated passion of art. And sometimes they rub shoulders as the miners, police and tutu-clad school girls do in one of the show-stopping numbers, Solidarity. 

That combination makes for an exciting, well-crafted musical with a stellar production team that includes Stephen Daldry’s inspired direction, Peter Darling’s all-embracing choreography and Sir Elton John’s infinitely supportive score for Lee Hall’s book and lyrics.

This team didn’t stick to just black-and-white, as they say. What makes this musical sing (and dance) are the rich details of life in a small mining town in Northern England. (Be forewarned, though, that it takes a while to get used to the accent. But the liberal use of foul-mouthed epithets comes through loud and clear.)

So Billy Elliot is a musical that is direct, often elevating its observation of working class characters to a finely-tuned art, although almost vaudevillian in its timing. As in Leah Hocking’s nuanced portrayal of Mrs. Wilkinson, a blowsy, seemingly hard-hearted teacher who sashays through class, but eventually opens herself to Billy’s talent. Then it turns around and gives the ever-so-aristocratic art of ballet some real grit. As in a gaggle of girls in tutus who constantly mock the pristine “boll-ey” vocabulary.

It takes you on a roller coaster ride of emotions, some of which start to overlap, because there’s a tangible human spirit that connects them. Billy’s journey in realizing his goal to become a “boll-ey” dancer eventually inspires a town in the midst of a bitter strike. And although the miners are eventually broken, they throw their weight behind Billy and help him soar.

Billy Elliot is a musical with plenty of spunk and spine, some of it definitely in the British music hall tradition. As in Billy’s hilarious cross-dressing friend (Jacob Zalonky). When their duet, Expressing Yourself, escalates into a full-blown number, a tinsel curtain drops in and a chorus line wends its way in, all in heels and dresses and blank masks, teasing us with who is male and who is female.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Ballet tries to escape the earth, but Billy Elliot is full of down-to-earth people who are living life as best they can, a grand cast through-and-through. It’s about family, with a blustery Dad (Rich Hebert) and a dotty Grandma (Cynthia Darlow). The ghost of Billy’s Mum (Kat Hennessey) makes a couple of appearances for tender exchanges. And it’s about Mrs. Wilkinson’s chip-off-the-old-block daughter, Debbie (Samantha Blaire Cutler), and a Small Boy (Jeremy Zorek) and a Scab (Tim Funnell). And about Billy’s pirouettes and tours ala seconde and tap dancing and acrobatics.

Rich.

In the end, it doesn’t matter so much that Billy is living in Northern England mining town, because the themes resonate with everyone. So connect with the old razzle-dazzle and bask in Billy’s shine, while the cast shows you “what life is all about.”

And dance.

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