Tonight I saw Billy Elliot: The Musical, the 2nd of 7 Playhouse Square Key Bank Broadway Series shows I have the privilege of reviewing as part of the official Playhouse Square Review Crew. As usual, I’d done my pre-show homework: I’d browsed various Billy Elliot websites, googled details about the show, watched Twitter for other people’s opinions, and read the educator’s guide for students. I even watched a live-streamed webcast session with some of the cast and crew from Durham, NC (where this second tour opened on October 20th) and interacted via back-channel chat with the actress playing Debbie!
After all my research, I was expecting the dancing to be stylistically diverse and extraordinarily well performed – and I was not disappointed! If you’ve ever seen “West Side Story” or “My One and Only” on stage or “Footloose”, “Flashdance”, “Dirty Dancing”, or “Save The Last Dance” on screen, you’ll recognize the universal pull that top dancers have on your very soul. They make it look easy, and regardless of your age or physical condition, you can imagine expressing yourself through dance as artfully as they do.
At the theatre, there is something even more special about the “aliveness” and presence of it all. When you hear and feel the reverberation of the tap shoes on the stage floor, when you see the tension in the muscles that it takes to hold an extended pirouette, then the dancing connects with you on a visceral level. And when you suddenly remember that some of these incredibly accomplished dancers are not even yet teenagers, you are truly blown away.
But a good Broadway show is more than just flashy dance numbers. Solid, believable acting is equally important. Here again, the entire cast of Billy Ellit was rock solid. The best actors and actresses truly live their parts – and you can’t conceive of them being anyone else. I honestly could not find fault with a single character on-stage tonight. From the feisty grandmother to the conflicted father, from the gawky pre-teens to the worn-out dance instructor, from the miners to the police – each role was lovingly and thoroughly explored and completely believable.
So if both the acting and the dancing were outstanding, why did I leave the theatre feeling disappointed? In short: the writing. I don’t care how many awards this musical has won. If THIS is the best Broadway has to offer in the past decade, then modern Broadway is in real trouble.
LearningNerd defines plot as, “a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance.” The show definitely attempted to cover a good deal of emotional and dramatic ground, tackling such diverse themes as homosexuality, death, unionism, homophobia, and the parent/child relationship. But it felt like too much was bitten off at once with none of the topics really fully or thoroughly explored. Even the flow from scene to scene was stilted and there just didn’t seem to be a cohesive storyline, especially in the first act.
The plot of Billy Elliot: The Musical hangs its contextual hat on the British coal miner’s strike of 1984, but the reasons for the strike and the animosity of the characters for then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher are never explained. Few, if any, musicals hinge so directly on such a specific, modern political environment. In order to really empathize with the characters, it would have been helpful to understand the situation more intimately. As an American audience member, I felt like an outsider.
Another aspect of the writing which fell flat for me was the language. Although the dialect was heavily criticized by a fellow Review Crew-er as being completely wrong, I wouldn’t know Cockney from Welsh from a Scottish brogue. However, cursing in any language comes across loud and clear. Although gritty, earthy language was deliberately used to make the musical sound more “authentic,” such foul language coming from children – and some really YOUNG children at that – was an absolute turn-off.
I read an interview with Stephen Daldry, who directed the movie and helped bring the stage version to life. He said that it is a reality that children use bad language and that this production was not going to ignore that reality. That may be true, but no child I know has, at the age of 7, 8, or 9 (as some of these characters were), called his/her father a bastard or so casually and frequently sworn in front of and at adults. It was jarring and it was gratuitous. It crossed the line, in my book, to the point where it took away from my enjoyment of the first act. I had read and heard from many other people that the language on this second tour was very much toned down from the Broadway version. Yikes! I very nearly brought my 9 year old to this production, but in retrospect, I am SO GLAD I did not. This is a show ABOUT a child, but it is not a show FOR children as far as I’m concerned.
I must close this review with special mentions for the two performers who, in my opinion, nearly stole the show out from under Billy’s ballet shoes. The first was Faith Prince, the renowned Broadway star and Tony award recipient who was educated in Cincinnati, Ohio! She stars on this tour as Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy’s ballet teacher and she sparkled in the role – both literally and figuratively! I thought she played the wistful yet down-to-earth part with just the right combination of grit and polish.
And finally, Jacob Zelonky who played the part of Michael, Billy’s cross-dressing, homosexual best friend, should receive way more accolades than he is. I cannot even imagine how completely wise-beyond-his-years and mature a young actor must be to play so confidently and truthfully so complex a role. In many ways, Michael’s role is as difficult dramatically as Billy’s is physically. Kudos, too, to Jacob’s parents for supporting him as they must be.
So should you go see Billy Elliot? Yes – if only to see what the buzz is about! Read up on your modern British labor (or should it be labour?) history then prepare to be dazzled by the dancing – and let me know what YOU think in the comments!
Billy Elliot: The Musical runs at Cleveland’s Playhouse Square until December 12th, 2010. Get your tickets here or by calling the box office at (216) 241-6000 or (866) 546-1353.