Sunday, June 24, 2007

'Billy Elliot' Storms The Victoria Palace - A Production Review

This musical is an adaptation of the 2000 film of the same name that garnered three major Oscar nominations (supporting actress, director and screenplay) and starred Jamie Bell as Billy. The film's director, Stephen Daldry, and screenwriter, Lee Hall, have taken up the task of adapting the film for the stage. Hall takes on the additonal duty of lyricist to the show's composer Elton John. The stage version is faithful to the film and in many ways better.

'Billy Elliot' is about a young boy growing up in a mining town in England during the early 1980s when the British government took on the powerful miners’ union. Billy’s father and brother are miners who are striking with the union. The family still grieves for Billy’s mother, and his grandmother needs constant attention because of senility. There is a running gag about finding food hidden all over their household by the senile grandma.

Billy reluctantly is sent each week by his father to attend boxing lessons at the local community center, but is distracted one day by Mrs. Wilkinson and her ballet class. Slowly, Billy is drawn to dance because of his need for self-expression and could make good one day as a dancer for the Royal Ballet. But confrontation follows, as Billy’s father and brother are not only fighting for their economic survival but also their dignity as men. They consider an activity like ballet to have no value.

Because of the demands and age of the lead role, no less than four young performers take on the role of Billy. Each young man must be able to sing, act and dance and essentially carry a show on their young shoulders. There is another requirement that their voices have not yet 'cracked'. The night I saw this production, Leon Cooke, graced the stage as 'Billy'. Incidentally, Billy's best friend and sister are youngsters as well and therefore these roles are triple cast.

Young Mr. Cooke showed that he is a skilled and talented young actor/dancer. His "Angry Dance", "Swan Lake" and "Electricity" dance numbers are amazing. Cooke performed each one effortlessly nearly stopping the show after each. Even non-dance fans will definitely be cheering for Billy. Shaun Malone, played Billy's best friend Michael at this performance and won over the audience for his comic performance that nearly overshadowed Cooke in their scenes together. The scene where Billy gives Michael a 'pinched' tutu is priceless. All the adult roles are cast well and Sally Dexter's performance as Mrs. Wilkinson stands tall with Julie Walter's performance in the film.

Elton John's tunes are engaging and runs the gamut of emotions. You'll probably find yourself toe tapping in a couple of the numbers. The score keeps up pace with the story and keeps everyone entertained. Particular standouts are the anthems "The Stars Look Down" and "Solidarity"; the fun "Born to Boogie"; the moving "The Letter"; and Billy's big number "Electricity". Among other audience favorites was "Grandma's Song" and "Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher". The scene that preceeds this last number is a pantomime that has a wink of fun at the expense of Americans in the audience.

Standing ovations in London are not automatic. However the rapturous standing ovation at the end was well earned. 'Billy Elliot' is a sensational, tough and bold show. Even at three hours, it succeeds brilliantly with songs, dance, and more than a dose of moving moments to bring out a tear or two. Audiences should be storming through the theatre's doors for a long time to come. There is no doubt why the show has been a hard ticket to find since it opened in May 2005.

'Billy Elliott' plays at the Victoria Palace Theatre. Performance times are Mon-Sat at 7:30pm and Thurs & Sat at 2:30pm. Ticket prices: GBP17.50-59.50. Book tickets at Recording of the Original London Cast available on iTunes or on CD on Decca Broadway. Due to some swearing, the CD carries a "parental advisory; explicit content" sticker. The CD includes a bonus disc of Elton John performing "The Letter", "Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher" and "Electricity". More information at Production photographs are used for illustration purposes.


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