Billy Elliot in Spades

photo by Michael Brosilow

The film “Billy Elliot” is a masterpiece of storytelling economy. Alongside its most famous thread — a young boy’s discovery of ballet — Lee Hall portrayed the impotent rage of a redundant working-class population (it’s set during the year-long strike of the British National Union of Mineworkers), the insularity and conformity of small-town England (this is Geordie territory, a Northern region with its own distinct Anglo-Saxon dialect) and the choking shame of hidden secrets and public losses (Billy’s friend Michael hides his homosexuality; Billy’s father is nearly mute for being both jobless and spouse-less after his wife’s early death).

It’s also great from the moment it begins. Even before he discovers dance, crinkly-nosed actor Jamie Bell (as Billy) shines like the blue sky over the smoke-darkened bricks and stupid, hot-headed eruptions going on around him. He’s the classic, loveable truant who runs around “like a right twat” ignoring dumb restrictions and deftly breaking societal rules. When he achieves greatness, he inspires his whole family and town to keep standing strong.

The original creative team from the film (director Stephen Daldry, writer Lee Hall and choreographer Peter Darling) was at the helm of the stage adaptation, which debuted in London’s West End in 2005 and on Broadway in 2008, and won Best Musical awards in both locations. If anyone’s going to wedge 15 songs into that tightly woven plot, you want those original visionaries to be part of it.

And so they were, keeping true to the full plotline of the film in a deft, creative manner, mashing the kids and adults into close quarters from the start of the show so as to pave the way for a continuous weaving of miners, cops, and ballet kids inside a charming set centered around a drafty room in a village hall. To top it off, they went with the music of Sir Elton John — indomitable, British, open about his struggles with his own dad, hugely successful as tunesmith for “The Lion King.”

Well, it doesn’t get any better than that. Or does it?

On Wednesday, the opening night of the production’s two-week Seattle run at The Paramount Theatre, crowds cheered and swooned from the opening curtain to the “company celebration” romp at the end. Behind me, there was a clutch of tear-streaked faces when the lights came up. Yet my date and I, avid theatergoers and fans of the film, were both as dark and disappointed as two lumps of cold black coal.

Something rather aggravating happened to “Billy Elliot” on its way to the stage: It jettisoned its core interpersonal struggles and became a portrait of brash, overflowing, unilateral defiance. Attitude and spunk are slathered across every character now. In the first scene, the supposedly dour Dad (Rich Hebert) is wearing an apron with fake boobs on it, shimmying as he cooks breakfast. (He beats up on himself later because he burns the food — not because he’s insanely lost and depressed.) Grandma (Patti Perkins) has gone from a soft, senile pillow to a crass, rump-shaking mama who gives the world the finger as her parting gesture.

Mrs. Wilkinson (Faith Prince), formerly listless and cynical, now yells “Hit It!” as she breaks into razzle-dazzle numbers with her over-the-top grotesque and charmless students. In her quieter modes she speaks Yoda-talk to Billy, espousing epithets such as “Dancing is as much about discovering things about yourself as it is about discovering things about dancing.” Most disappointing, there is now a very weird disconnect with Billy — when she hears Billy recite his mum’s letter from memory, she breaks into a feverish song-and-dance number right afterwords — which keeps the narrative from deepening where it most needs to.

There’s still Michael (Griffin Birney), who played like Billy’s meek, beautiful shadow in the film. Here, Michael is adorable, not beautiful. And he’s much younger, or at least smaller, so his gay desires look like play. He and Billy get to live out a fantasy together, in a number called “Expressing Yourself,” that makes their Durham Coalfield neighborhood look like something out of a Bette Midler review.

Why such desperation to keep the tone light? Is this really the same crew that painted despair and confusion so brilliantly in the film? Why is there no buildup to the answering of prayers? What is wrong here??

Elton John’s simple, predictable tunes may be the culprit. His music here is without complexity or depth, so all manner of guns have been brought in to keep some buoyancy and energy alive. Some of the anthems have likeable melodies (“The Stars Look Down,” “Solidarity”) but there are non-stop antics throughout, ever escalating, ever more confusing. Even the “Born to Boogie” paean to T. Rex, the glam-rock group whose music ignited the film, only serves to remind of the difference between John’s efficient Broadway tone and the hip rockabilly sound of the T. Rex song. When bits of English pantomime are introduced into the show — during a Christmas pageant in Act II — it’s the first palatable way that’s been found to amp up the energy.

The regional flavor of the film was unflinching (there were subtitled versions for international showings), but now it’s watered way down, if not completely ignored. After eight years of sell-out performances, has the figure of Billy Elliot now transmuted into a universally adopted symbol for boyish survival?

Here in Seattle, the main character is played by Lex Ishimoto, a California hip-hop dancer whose body and expressions had nothing rural-British in them. He did attempt a British accent, however — if not a Geordie one. The sparkling Faith Prince, in the role of Mrs. Wilkinson, had a nice accent, but it came and went. Several supporting actors were discernibly English, but in general the distinctive diction was annoyingly exploited for gags and energetic bursts. “Oy!” “Fat bah-stads!”

The choreography also lost its geographical distinction. Gone is the furious step dance — such a powerful UK locator. Now we have tap dancing, and back handsprings, and hands that keep making boxy shapes for some reason. Sometimes elegiac, sometimes exciting, never very specific. Billy’s dance solos, even so, are still much preferable to most of the songs.

The word “Disney-fied” gets at the feel of the sweetening and antic-ization that “Billy Elliot” feels to have received. But it wouldn’t be quite accurate, because Disney wasn’t involved here. And maybe it’s a case of weighing expectations, but the last Disney release I saw, “Gnomeo and Juliet,” which also featured the songs of Elton John, was actually a lot more fun than this.

[this article first ran on Crosscut.]

Comments

  1. Greg P. says

    I have not seen this touring production, but did see the original tour in Chicago as well as the Broadway version, with the original group of U.S. Billy’s. I have also seen the movie. I will keep my comments focused on my disagreement with your view of the adaptation of the movie into the musical rather than discussing any of the individual performances.

    THE MUSIC: Elton John’s music is a perfect mix of styles and tempo that befit the time period in North East England. Rather than relying on the original rock and punk rock soundtrack from the movie, the creation here is one that taps into the working class community at that time. Male voice choirs, folksongs, and yes some rock and roll creates a feel for what was happening in the Music halls in 1984. Elton did his homework and made a wise choice in authenticity. Yes, this is a Broadway musical, so there should be some pizazz like “Expressing Yourself.” Instead of being filler though it turns into a true anthem for accepting yourself and doing what you truly love to do. Lee Hall’s lyrics tell the tale of living through that time period in Northern England. Listen to them and what you will hear are the harsh realities of life and a boy who finds his niche, a passion, all before it gets destroyed.

    THE DANCING: The choreography is the most interesting and moving aspect of the musical. The intermingling of miners, police, and ballet class is a stunning use of dance in theater and one of the greatest I have ever witnessed. Peter Darling’s choices throughout the entire 3 hours are not meant to fill the stage with meaningless movement, but instead used to tell the story. It brings further meaning to a show that is not about dance but about those of us who have a dream waiting to be discovered.

    ACCENTS: A true Geordie accent from Northeast England is a hard one to understand, almost like a language you are not used to hearing. It has been watered down considerably but thank goodness. I get a far better feel for the story by actually comprehending what is being spoken on the stage without needing an interpreter.

    FINAL THOUGHTS: You may have felt like a “lump of coal” but I always feel uplifted by the message, much like Billy as he soars over his adult self in the dream sequence. Billy Elliot is a triumph in every way. Audiences truly adore this musical. With nearly six years of sellouts in England and coming up on 3 years in New York City, unlike yourself, the story leaves most cheering and crying, while being in total awe of the performances from both old and young cast members.

    I agree with Director Daldry in his comments comparing the movie and musical that, “Everything works better onstage” in the telling of this story. The musical portrays tolerance and discovery in an environment that screams just the opposite. The result is art mixed in with cultural commentary. I can’t wait to see it again.

  2. mickey grogan says

    Billy Elliot The Musical is not a true musical or play, and can not be a replay of the movie. It is a play with drama, comedy relief and music and if it is judged as such, then it becomes one of the best shows on stage anywhere in the world.
    It is brilliant, but it requires knowledge of the miner’s strike. Elton John’s music does not detract from the plot, but enhances it. Lee Hall’s script and lyrics reveal many sub-plots. Peter Darling created genus choreography. Steven Daldry was even better as director of The Musical than the Film. No creative person seeking to learn about making a movie, play or musical should fail to see this show.
    My final advice to any reviewer who is amazed Billy Elliot The Musical has received world-wide acclaim and cheering local audiences– You Have Missed It. See the show again and you may see what the rest of us have seen. “The best show that you will ever see”.