AISLE SAY San Francisco


Music by Elton John
Book and Lyrics by Lee Hall
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Presented by Shorenstein Nederlander Hays
Orpheum Theatre
1192 Market St., San Francisco / (888)746-1799

Reviewed by Judy Richter

If you love dance, there's plenty to enjoy in "Billy Elliot," the Tony-winning musical that has landed in San Francisco for the next few months. Based on the popular 2000 movie of the same name, it's set in a hardscrabble Northern England mining town beset by a year-long, devastating strike protesting Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's efforts to privatize the coal mines and bust the unions.

Stephen Daldry, who directed the movie, also directs the musical, which features music by Elton John and a book and lyrics by Lee Hall. It's the compelling story of an 11-year-old boy whose mother is dead and whose father is emotionally detached. At his father's behest, he reluctantly takes boxing lessons, but he accidentally discovers the dance class that follows in the same recreation center. He's reluctant about that, too, but the tough-tender teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson (Faith Prince), sees his potential and encourages him. When his father, Dad (Rich Hebert), and older brother, Tony (Jeff Kready), find out about his balletic ambitions, they're opposed, fearing he'll become gay. Nevertheless, his talent offers him a far brighter future than he could have in his hometown, so eventually the community rallies around him and sadly watches him leave.

The terrific choreography, which features a variety of styles from classical ballet to tap, is by Peter Darling. It 's brilliantly executed by the large ensemble cast and by the opening night Billy (J.P. Viernes), one of five boys alternating in the demanding role. Fifteen-year-old J.P. is a local product, hailing from Half Moon Bay just south of San Francisco. He's also a good actor and singer.

Prince is seemingly unflappable as Mrs. Wilkinson, who doesn't take any guff from anyone but who allows her caring for Billy to come through. Hebert also does well as Dad. Also noteworthy in the cast are young Griffin Birney (alternating with another boy) as Michael, Billy's best friend, who has a penchant for dressing in his sister's clothes. Patti Perkins plays Billy's slightly dotty Grandma, whose short-term memory is declining.

John's music, which works well, has passing hints to other hit musicals such as "Gypsy," "Les Miserables" and "Evita." Ian MacNeil's set design is fluid, affording easy transitions between locations. The lighting is by Rick Fisher with costumes by Nicky Gillibrand and sound by Paul Arditti.

The show was well-received on opening night and deservedly so with all its attributes, especially the dancing.

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