Critique of the Week – Runner Up

A giddy review, like flowers blooming in April.

BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL
Samuel Bernstein – Stage and Cinema

A VERY F***ING SPECIAL SHOW

One of the big dramatic moments in Billy Elliot, making its Los Angeles premiere for a month-long run at the Pantages, comes late in the second act, when Billy’s first teacher is saying good-bye. “You are very fucking special,” she says, spitting the words at him. “Now piss off, before you make me cry.” Leah Hocking, as the teacher, plays it with perfect, unembellished, no-frills aplomb. She doesn’t have to do anything to make it into a big, showy scene—she just tells the truth—unhurried, completely sure of herself and of the material—and she breaks your heart. Everything that will never happen for her; everything that will never happen for the miners in this Northern England village whose way of life is coming to an ugly, crashing end; everything that will never happen for Billy’s family—all of that is the price that is being paid for Billy to have his chance.

Billy’s future life is an unknown. Maybe he will become a great dancer—maybe he will discover and flourish in an entirely different kind of life. Good for him. The great strength of Billy Elliot is that it doesn’t try to pawn off that journey as some sort of self-congratulatory paean to the transformative powers of show business. The stakes feel more real than that. Billy’s gift is a little freakish. The goodies it brings are intertwined with tremendous loss. In the end, he does not ride off into the London sunset believing he has it made. He doesn’t know what to believe or what to think. Sure there are feel-good anthems in the show, lyrics and dialogue that encourage everyone to “be yourself,” and learn how to “shine,” – the building blocks of most self-help blather – but in the Billy Elliot universe, “being yourself” and “shining” doesn’t in any way forestall the possibility that everything still might go to shit anyway.

It’s 1984. A mining village in Northern England is plunged into a labor strike that will ultimately destroy an entire way of life. A boy learns to dance. His family falls apart, then finds a way to survive, if not necessarily to flourish. Dreams are born. Dreams die hard.

I have to confess, this is my first time seeing the musical version of Billy Elliot. I liked the indie film when it came out in 2000, and I wasn’t in a hurry to see it homogenized, in the way I imagined it would have to be, in order to compete with the big Disney musicals on Broadway. This turns out to have been completely wrongheaded of me. There are certainly tonal and narrative departures in the adaptation from film to stage, but the heart and spirit of the material is not just intact, it is thriving.

Ty Forhan is astonishing as Billy. Yes, he can dance, act, and sing, and yes, it’s a mystery, if not a genuine miracle, that kids like him are recruited from all over the place (he’s from Newmarket, Ontario) in order to keep the various companies of Billy Elliot running. For me, though, the thing about his performance that is so astonishing, is the way he is able to physically inhabit the transformation of Billy from someone who has never danced before, or perhaps even witnessed a ballet step, into someone who doesn’t just dance well, but dances remarkably well. It’s a feat of both technical and emotional discipline that requires rare skill and even rarer grace.

The dance numbers aren’t just about ballet. The original choreography by Peter Darling and direction by Stephen Daldry is striking in its mixture of dance styles and storytelling. Little girl ballet students weave in and out of surprising formations with miners and policeman; light and shadow illuminate inner desires, young Billy partners with his presumed adult self and they don’t just dance, they fly – literally and figuratively. It’s a neat trick, and totally unexpected, that such earthy and earthly delight could be rooted in expressionistic flights of fancy. It is wonderfully well executed, totally modern, yet lovingly steeped in musical theater tradition.

The musical sequences are memorable even when some of the songs are not, such as the opening sequence, “The Stars Look Down,” when we meet the miners and they go on strike. Neither the tune nor the lyrics really stick in your head, but the sequence does, as it draws us in visually and viscerally. Most of the “uplifting” songs are forgettable, but again, the musical sequences that contain them are not – particularly in the thrilling power of “Solidarity,” when the entire company comes together into what feels like a single organism.

There is also the sheer pleasure of watching manly men (miners and cops, after all) joyfully dancing in a way that celebrates their innate masculinity – which is not exactly beside the point in a story that is largely propelled by how these characters feel about what is masculine and what is feminine. Even Billy’s hilariously unconfused, cross-dressing friend Michael (played by Cameron Clifford with an almost scary, preternatural brio) shows his own narrow-mindedness when he declares that ballet is “fucking weird.”

One of the best songs is a sort of soliloquy. Early in the first act, Billy’s grandmother, played by Patti Perkins, sings, “We’d Go Dancing,” a number that starts out as if it is going to be about nostalgia for her late husband, but turns into a coarsely funny rant about how much she hated the drunken son-of-a-bitch, with a sad twist: “We were free for an hour or three, from the people we had to be, but in the morning, we were sober…” A truly great lyric by Lee Hall, who also wrote the book. Music is by Elton John.

Perkins is sly and funny as the grandmother, and joined by Rich Hebert as Billy’s dad, and Cullen R. Titmus as Billy’s brother, they form a family unit that is as supportive as it is potentially stifling. Hebert and Titmus find moments of great stillness and force. Joel Blum, as Billy’s erstwhile boxing instructor, is also terrific.

Sometimes expectations are everything. Since I expected homogenization and oversimplification, I find myself thrilled that so much gritty realism remains. This is not to say there are not inconsistencies: certainly the production values of the miners’ Christmas Panto (wherein a massive, expensive, hideous puppet of Maggie Thatcher looms above the stage) are beyond what real striking miners would be able to afford; there is a slightly grating quality to some of the one-liners the younger children shout out to constant applause; and, while the accent coach is obviously working with a great deal of diligence, there are moments of dialect awkwardness here and there.

But I don’t much care. The storytelling is surefooted and elegant. We believe everything people say, everything they feel, and everything they do.

The ending is happy enough for musical comedy but doesn’t betray the complexity of the characters’ lives and circumstances. Then we get the extended curtain call medley, which giddily aims for having it both ways, the message being: Maybe everything is blissfully upbeat after all! Okay. I get it. “But, you are very fucking special,” I wanted to shout at the cast, “Now piss off, before the lights come up and anyone sees me crying in public.”

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Colin Mitchell About the Author: COLIN MITCHELL: Actor/Writer/Director/Producer/Father, award-winning playwright and screenwriter, Broadway veteran, Marvel comics scribe, Van Morrison disciple, Zen-Catholic, a proud U.S. Army Brat conceived in Scotland and born in Frankfurt, Germany, currently living in Los Angeles and doing his best to piss off as many people as possible.

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