Even if you’ve never been a motherless 11-year-old boy taking ballet class in secret, using the money your father gave you for boxing lessons despite the withering economic climate he faced during the 1984-85 British coal miners’ strike, the story of Billy Elliot is your story.
After all, who hasn’t been in Billy’s shoes — dancing or otherwise — aching to find your place in the world but petrified as you peer down the long road toward adulthood, brimming with grown-up emotions swirling inside a child’s body? This is moving stuff, set into brilliant motion in a stage musical adaptation of the popular 2000 film of the same name.
(Photo by Michael Brosilow)
Writer Lee Hall, director Stephen Daldry and choreographer Peter Darling reprise their big-screen responsibilities here, with Hall also penning the lyrics for a catchy score by Elton John. If some of the mechanics of the stage form feel a bit forced — the team favors early showstoppers for characters whose names you’ve barely caught, and movie memories seem to be counted on at times as a form of dramatic shorthand — the overall effect is one of remarkable achievement: sweeping, unforgettable images of riot police alongside tutu-clad girls; of miners disappearing into the earth as their helmets illuminate a hauntingly sparse stage; of a young hero propelling his body in astounding bursts of grief, rage and the unstoppable energy of youth.
Well crafted, too, are the smaller moments that shape Billy (brought to life on opening night by Lex Ishimoto, one of five actors rotating in the role in this touring production): when his deceased mother (Kat Hennessey) appears before him, as real as she ever was; when he bonds with dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (Leah Hocking), who believes he has the raw talent to get into the Royal Ballet School; when he accepts a quick kiss from his gay friend Michael (Ben Cook, one of two actors alternating in the role) without lashing out at him as a ”poof,” the label Billy lives in fear of.
Then there is his home life, dominated by a menacing father (Rich Hebert) and older brother (Cullen R. Titmas) who are rattled by the prospect of losing their economic foundation, as well as by Billy’s dreams of a life outside the mine. But however daunting his circumstances may be — when his family finally starts to encourage him, the ravages of the strike make bus fare to London for his ballet school audition appear out of reach — Billy evinces fortitude and determination, displayed through a vocabulary of movement that speaks as forcefully as any words ever could.
As serious as the overarching themes of Billy Elliot are, it is certainly not without its share of lighter moments. Hocking’s chain-smoking, leg-warmer-clad Mrs. Wilkinson strives to bring out the best in her young ballet dancers’ mostly limited talents with the rousing number ”Shine,” and Billy soon hears a similar let-your-inner-self-out message from Michael, who is unashamed of his interest in cross-dressing and extols its virtues in ”Expressing Yourself.” Later, the miners’ political enemy No. 1 is in for a silly skewering, complete with puppets, in ”Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher.”
Ultimately, all of these elements — dark and light — combine to evocatively show where Billy is from. But he knows (and we know, too, because we’ve been there) that where he’s from doesn’t define where he’s going. And every step he takes in that direction is nothing less than a joy to watch.