In Billy Elliot the Musical, one boy sets out into the world to make his dreams come true. Set in small-town Britain, the story follows Billy as he stumbles out of the boxing ring and into a ballet class, discovering a surprising talent that inspires both his family and community, changing his life forever. While Billy is busy with weekly boxing lessons, deep down they’re really not of interest to him.
Based on the successful 2000 film, Billy Elliot the Musical features music by Elton John, choreography by Peter Darling, and direction by Stephen Daldry. I was hoping to hear some T Rex, but this is not a movie remake. Let me emphasize that early on.
If you’ve seen Billy Elliot the movie, be prepared for some variations in Billy Elliot the Musical. While some of the lines are taken right from the film, other scenes provide a few turns off the path. I found the stage sets, choreography, and lighting all very solid, however the soul of Lee Hall’s original story was lost during most of the first half.
In this production, there’s very little border between the lives of the Elliot family and the 1984 coal mining strike taking place outside their home. A poster in the Queen Elizabeth theatre lobby points to how the strike played a major role in society, affecting over a quarter-million-member union, one of the strongest in Britain. As in both the film and Broadway Across Canada production, the Thatcher years reflected a sea change in both mood and pride.
At times I’d wished to have seen the Elliot’s struggles set further away from the angry mob. The stage scenes appear claustrophobic, especially when the young ballerinas weave through the cops. Symbolism yes, but confusion at times for the story.
Stage sets are sparsely furnished to reflect the economic downturn; the only colour comes from Billy’s (Drew Minard) and buddy Michael’s scenes. Michael (Jake Kitchin) is enjoyable to watch, especially when he raids his sister’s colourful armoire.
Having seen the film version a few days ago (to refresh my memory of the story), I vividly recall his passion fueled when watching the young girls at the makeshift ballet school take their lessons. In this version however, that passion is sadly missing until well into the second act.
A few lines in the play are really unnecessary to the story line, but added for fun and whimsy, particularly Mr. Braithwaite (Patrick Wetzel), the ballet school’s piano accompanist. Another strong example is Grandma (well-performed by Patti Perkins), who comes to life with a bright wit and dance numbers, a strong contrast to the film version where she’s nearly comatose.
As well, Billy’s Mum (a lovely performance by Molly Garner) plays a more prominent role here than in the film, lending her soft voice to guide Billy in a few key scenes.
Particularly enjoyable is Billy’s “Angry Dance”, where out of sheer frustration with his situation, the young, hopeful star strikes out against a battery of police shields and loud music. Dad’s “Deep Into the Ground” follows in Act II, set six months later into the story. We learn about his younger days, melancholy, and lost love. Rich Hebert has a beautiful voice: both his passion and anger fuel the play.
Drew Minard is a fabulous young talent, while Janet Dickinson’s Mrs. Wilkinson is a bit overbearing but fits right into the role as feisty ballet school teacher. A key scene is included at a different moment in the musical than in the film. I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether this is a positive thing. Overall a fun production with a lot of energy.
Billy Elliot the Musical continues through April 7 at the Queen E Theatre. Visit the Broadway Across Canada website for more information.