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Review - Billy Elliot: I Just Wanna F***in' Dance

If I were a betting man I'd wager Billy Elliot to be the last show standing should the economy remain steadfast in its current quest to entirely obliterate Broadway. (Any truth to the rumor that the next thing moving into the ST. James is a Starbucks?) Throngs who were enchanted by the musical's source film and even more who have been undertowed by the waves of publicity surrounding the three adolescents who alternate performing the title role (presumably until puberty brings out the hook) will no doubt enter the Imperial Theatre for many months or even years to come, as eager to see the kid dance as audiences at Miss Saigon were to see Royal Academy of Dramatic Art graduate Jonathan Pryce hump a Cadillac. And Billy Elliot never disappoints in that respect. My Billy of the evening was the very game Trent Kowalik, but even if you catch a performance starring David Alvarez or Kiril Kulish (or understudy Tommy Batchelor) you can take your seat assured you'll be witnessing the work of a specially trained specimen carefully schooled in the arts of ballet, tap, street dance, jazz and gymnastics at the exclusive Billy Elliot House, which I'm told is only a short drive from Grease Academy.

But if I seem less than completely enthused about what is undoubted the best anti-Margaret Thatcher musical to hit Broadway since Blood Brothers, it's because, despite an interesting story told through exceptionally vivid, dramatic visuals delivered by director Stephen Daldry and choreographer Peter Darling via a mostly excellent cast, the music of Elton John and the book and lyrics of Lee Hall, while never awful, rarely achieve a quality that surpasses reasonably competent.

Now, reasonably competent is nothing to be sneered at these days. I can name a few recent productions that might have welcomed the opportunity to display the quote "Reasonably Competent!" outside their theatres. And while good direction, impressive production values and fine casting can sometimes make an evening of lesser material somewhat bearable, Messrs. Daldry and Darling skillfully dangle so many pretty, shiny things in front of the audience that if you block out the shoddy jokes, serviceable songs and plethora of moments that screech the evening to a halt you might find yourself convinced you were witnessing high art.

Not having seen the flick, which was also directed by Daldry, choreographed by Darling and penned by Hall, I was seated with only slight knowledge of its story of an 11-year-old son of a British coal miner who, during a brutal year-long 1984 strike, winds up taking a fancy to the ballet and secretly starts using the money he's supposed to spend on boxing lessons for dance classes. The show starts with a directorial flourish as documentary film footage explaining labor politics of the day dissolves into a scene where, with their children running around in carefree play, workers sing a unity anthem with orchestrations by Martin Koch that make them sound like the student rebels of Les Miserables.

And that's when Billy Elliot's main flaw starts becoming apparent. The show's best writing and most impressive staging comes in the scenes involving the coal miners, climaxing before the first act has hit its halfway point in a musical scene where the strikers are confronted by riot police, sent by Prime Minister Thatcher to help bust the union, outside a community center where their daughters are cheerfully going about their dance routines. The innocent joy on the inside contrasting with the volatile tension on the outside, eventually blending together in a comedic clash, is a great example of the best kind of character-and-plot driven musical theatre dramatics. Unfortunately the lightweight song that accompanies the scene ("SOlidarity, soliDARity, SOlidarity forEVer") can best be described as "protest disco."

Blossoming out of this conflict is the most interesting character of the night, Billy's dad; a widower dutifully taking on both traditional parental roles while fearful that the boy's interest in dance will turn him into a, as they say in County Durham, poof. Of course one of the reasons the role is so interesting is that Gregory Jbara is giving the best performance of his admirable Broadway career, revealing the character's slow and beautiful growth from a man who sternly loves his son in the only way he knows how to someone so open to trying to understand his boy's passion for a world he finds strange and suspiciously foreign that he's willing to make an unthinkable sacrifIce To help Billy achieve his dream. The heart of the show pumps mightily when the slightly inebriated elder Elliot sings a pro-labor folk song at a Christmas gathering and, at the finish, sees his lad timidly singing along with him. The expression in Jbara's face and the quiver in his voice suggest relief that, finally, he can connect with his son over something gravely important. When Billy has the opportunity to audition for the Royal Ballet School and performs an extraordinarily athletic routine as a way of expressing how dancing makes him feel, it's Jbara, sitting quietly in a chair, watching with expressions of shock, bewilderment and pride in finally understanding what his son can do and how important it is to him, who is giving the emotionally uplifting performance.

While Hall must be credited for inventing the situations that are well acted and staged, he also must take at least partial blame for the lack of empathy established for the title character, filling his dialogue instead with frequent witless moments that attempt to derive humor from having little kids and kooky grown-ups spewing out curse words and sexual innuendo for punch lines, a routine that gets pretty tiresome by the time a lovesick tyke is offering to show Billy her "hoo-hoo."

He may carry far more stage time than anyone else in the show and be spotlighted in three major dance moments (and quite a few lesser ones), but the lad is quite underwritten when it comes to dialogue and song, and is continually upstaged by the supporting cast's flashier moments. He sits quietly during his dotty grandmother's (Carole Shelly with her usual panache) musical remembrance of how she'd forget what a lousy drunken sod her husband was every time he took her dancing and feeds straight lines to his young cross-dressing pal Michael (Frank Dolce at my performance) before they launch into glitzed up tap-dancing vaudevillian turn that is so jarringly different from the rest of the production you can feel the creators screaming, "Be entertained, dammit!" That same desire to entertain at the expense of good storytelling may be the reason Billy's first private ballet lesson from the chain-smoking, disillusioned but always caring Mrs. Wilkinson (Haydn Gwynne) is set to a song called, "Born to Boogie."

The ten wonderful young ladies who make up Wilkinson's class (Juliette Allen Angelo, Heather Ann Burns, Eboni Edwards, Meg Guzulescu, Izzy Hanson-Johnston, Caroline London, Marina Micalizzi, Tessa Netting, Corrieanne Stein and Casey Whyland), an endearing collection of shapes, sizes, ages and abilities, steal every moment they're on by dancing as a realistic ensemble of enthused but unpolished individuals.

Having Billy's deceased mother (Leah Hocking) appear to him in memory is too much of a cliché to be effective but the major misstep of the night comes from the decision to strap the boy to a harness so that he can perform impossible feats of flight during a pas de deux from Swan Lake with his imagined older self (Stephen Hanna). And while I'm sure the intention is to show the freedom the boy feels as he dances, the sight of it reduces the character's dream to a special effect, no different than a falling chandelier or an on stage helicopter, instead of demonstrating the true beauty of obtainable human grace.

And that reminds me of a lesson Mrs. Wilkinson sings to her students in the first act:

Try to keep your arm in line.
Come on, at least pretend you're doing fine.
You can wow 'em every time;
All you have to do is shine.
Forget about content,
Focus on style.
Steal an inch on them
And they'll give you a mile.
And smile, smile, smile, smile.

Despite some truly fine work, the heartbreaking part of Billy Elliot is that all too often the creators offer little more than shine.

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From This Author Michael Dale