Bowing tonight (as I write this) at the Academy of Music presented by Networks is the National Tour of the Tony Award winning musical, Billy Elliot: The Musical. Premiering in London’s West End in 2005 it won four Laurence Olivier Awards going on to productions in Australia and Broadway. Winning ten Tonys, it’s been running on Broadway for three years now and it looks like there’s no stopping it. The true strength of this musical is its marvelous book by Lee Hall who also wrote the original screenplay for the 2000 film of the same name which it is based on. Mr. Hall’s dialogue is wonderfully realistic, gritty, poignant and funny. The music by Sir Elton John is upbeat and hard hitting with some standout songs such as “Shine”, “Born to Boogie” and “Expressing Yourself”.
Billy Elliot takes place in County Durham, in a small mining town in England during the 1984 coal miner’s strike. The British National Union of Mineworkers has gone on a year long strike just as the conservative party headed by Margaret Thatcher is intent on breaking the unions. Billy is a motherless boy being raised by his well meaning but wifty grandmother and his coal mining Dad and older brother. When Billy trades in his boxing gloves for dancing lessons, family conflicts arise to crush his artistic aspirations. The story evolves against a background of community strife as Billy struggles to fulfill his dreams of becoming a professional dancer.
Leah Hocking (Mrs. Wilkinson in the original Broadway cast) is stellar as the not too terribly talented dancing teacher who discovers Billy’s talent. Always with a cigarette in her mouth, she barks at her students and completely ignores her own dancing daughter. Though she’s trapped in a little town with an alcoholic husband, she encourages Billy to pursue his dream and escape the bleak reality of their dying little town. Using just the right mixture of tough cynical bravura and soft heartedness, Ms. Hocking gives us a marvelously three dimensional woman – which is not so easy to do in a musical. (I must add that she is helped in no small way by Mr. Hall’s terrific book.) Rich Hebert is quite arresting as Dad, Billy’s tough, macho but warm hearted father. Cynthia Darlow is very funny and poignant as the slightly daffy Grandma and Jacob Zelonky was quite adorable as Michael, Billy’s friend that likes to dress up in his Mum’s clothes. Though not yet a singer of note, young Lex Ishimoto pirouettes right into the audience’s heart. He’s a sprite, a lanky little faun with incredible acrobatic skills.
The choreography by Peter Darling is highly inventive and always surprising. He has a thing about chairs and uses them in almost every conceivable fashion. Working in wonderful tandem with the director, Stephen Daldry the show moves at a breakneck pace as it tells two stories, the life of a little mining town and little Billy Elliot.