It's not often that a musical comes along that is as ambitious as it is emotional — and then succeeds on both counts. But "Billy Elliot," which opened Thursday at Broadway's Imperial Theatre, is an exceptional work that exemplifies what the best musicals are all about: collaboration. Everything comes together in this impressive, warmhearted adaptation of the 2000 British film about a North Country coal miner's young son who yearns to dance and join the Royal Ballet School in London.
BILLY ELLIOT Broadway Reviews
Reviews of Billy Elliot on Broadway. See what all the critics had to say and see all the ratings for Billy Elliot including the New York Times and More...
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4 out of 4 stars.
It's so rare that a show lives up to its hype that I was all set to be underwhelmed by Billy Elliot: The Musical, the London mega-smash based on the 2000 film about a coal miner's son who longs to join the ballet. Reports from across the pond had this tuner the greatest thing since sliced bread. Well, count me as a big old Billy fan. What could easily have become a feel-good treacle fest — particularly with the king of pop ballads, Elton John, composing the music — turns out to be one of the smartest and most satisfying Broadway musicals in years.
Much of the power of “Billy Elliot” as an honest tear-jerker lies in its ability to give equal weight to the sweet dreams of terpsichorean flight and the sourness of a dream-denying reality, with the two elements locked in a vital and unending dialogue. This isn’t wholesale escapism à la Busby Berkeley or “Mamma Mia!” In tone, it’s closer to the song-dotted working-class films of Terence Davies or, on television, Dennis Potter’s “Pennies From Heaven.”
Hall's script is vivid and smart and gets excellent support from the songs. He wrote lyrics, Elton John, the music. No single tune is bound to be a pop recording hit. Still, the fine score covers an array of styles - folk tunes, anthems, novelty numbers - and emotions that beautifully move the story along. It's worth noting that the show's soundscape is crystal-clear. Daldry's staging shows an eye for intelligent detail throughout, especially in the knockout "Solidarity" sequence. It brilliantly weaves plot, music and dance together as a classroom of pint-sized ballerinas in tutus (the cutest mob of moppets since "Annie") merge with angry miners and cops.
Granted, "Billy Elliot" isn't perfect - a scene with giant dancing dresses might have gone AWOL from some Disney show on ice - but it's still head and toe-shoes above every other show this season. So thanks, Maggie Thatcher, for giving us something to sing about.
A show's claim to offer ``something for everyone' usually signals disaster: the lowest common denominator and the antithesis of art. Well, for once, the exception proves true: ``Billy Elliot' -- London's long-running hit with Elton John's music, finally replicated on Broadway -- really does have something for everyone, and that something is, gloriously, art.
Three-and-a-half years may seem a long time for an instantaneous London smash like "Billy Elliot: The Musical" to cross the Atlantic, but the delay looks to have played serendipitously into the producers' hands. With unemployment figures soaring and the economy in the dumps, the zeitgeist could hardly be more attuned to the stirring story of a Northern England miner's son liberated from bleak reality by his passion for ballet. But even without that happy accident of timing, American audiences would have no trouble connecting with the universal sentiment of this bittersweet dual celebration of community and individuality.
Elton John’s score is, let’s be honest, a dullish parade of midtempo ballads and soft rock, and Lee Hall’s book is superior to his merely adequate lyrics, but this production is emphatically more than the sum of its parts. Director Stephen Daldry (who also helmed the movie) does wizardly work balancing the various dialectics that give the material its crackle of sublime storytelling: broad spectacle versus tight dramatic focus, collective sacrifice versus individual excellence, escapism versus social duty.
It celebrates the mineworkers’ collective struggle with all the political passion of a Studs Terkel history. Its extensive cast of children makes you think about the cost of growing up in a world of angry adults, but also the ability of kids to transcend such a world. And it ultimately comes down to a dad (played, superbly, by Gregory Jbara) who, like most of us, doesn’t understand much about his world, except for the most important thing therein. He has to get behind his kid.
Luckily, neither original screenwriter Lee Hall's libretto nor the lyrics he wrote to accompany Elton John's unapologetically sentimental score require us to hear every word. The characters are drawn in broad strokes, with good humor but little nuance; their function is more to serve a larger message than to relay compelling idiosyncrasies.
Billy Elliot is by no means perfect. Like the original London production, it is still too long (with a seemingly endless curtain call). Some numbers are less melodically compelling ('He Could Go and He Could Shine'), and some scenes are awkwardly staged. But the ideas that work here — and there are many — work magnificently, whether it's presenting the striking miners and the police as opposing choruses or the moving second-act pas de deux with Billy and his older self (New York City Ballet vet Stephen Hanna). In such moments, the potential of Billy Elliot, both character and show, seems both boundless and fully realized. In tough economic times that seem eerily similar to 1980s Britain, in fact, it's easy to imagine projecting all of our recession-weary hopes onto the slender shoulders of a precociously gifted pre-teen boy.
Billy Elliot's adapters, in contrast, are also its source authors: Librettist Lee Hall and director Stephen Daldry were the original film's screenwriter and director. Tchaikovsky, who wrote the show's best number, was presumably not available to rewrite, but Elton John, who composed the remainder of the score, presumably was. The result is an oddly uneven work, full of beautiful and exhilarating moments, their energy dissipated by what looks like uncertainty of purpose: The creators don't always seem sure what story to tell, where to focus in telling it, or how best to use the enormous resources at their command. It adds up to a kind of musical-theater tasting menu: A little Disney, a little docudrama, a little heightened realism à la Brecht, a little music-hall rowdiness, a little old-fashioned showbiz, and even a little Piscator-style Expressionist political theater.
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.
What works in this show, though, is the ballet. The sequences set in Mrs. Wilkinson's studio are delightful (they feature a corps of little girls who are deliberately dancing poorly, and they're charming). The sequences where Billy learns to dance under the tutelage of Mrs. Wilkinson and her accompanist Mr. Braithwaite are gorgeous. And the sequence where Billy imagines himself a grown-up ballet dancer (Older Billy is performed by New York City Ballet principal dancer Stephen Hanna) is the highlight, despite the fact that unnecessary stage fog obscures some of it, and despite the fact that it doesn't actually make much sense for a boy to dream of being partnered by his older self. The contemporary choreography—all of the dances are by Peter Darling—is more scattershot; Darling doesn't seem to have a handle on how to match movements to Billy's body or to his personality. The score, by Elton John with lyrics by bookwriter/original screenwriter Lee Hall, is nondescript in the book songs (which are actually relatively few in number; this is a book-heavy musical with lots of dancing but not much singing). Steven Daldry's direction gets the job done efficiently.
No doubt Stephen Daldry, who directed both the musical and the film on which it is based, deserves some of the credit for the high quality of their performances -- and the low quality of the show in which they're performing. I've seen my share of bad Broadway musicals, but I can't recall one that was quite so vulgar and bogus as "Billy Elliot."