BY JULIAN SMITH
When I was told that I’d have the opportunity to review Billy Elliot: The Musical on its opening night of an eight show stand at Columbus’ historic Palace Theatre, I immediately had recollections of the film off which it was based. It was these recollections — the dismal, dreary gray of the titular character’s hometown, the opening sequence where he dances awkwardly to T. Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer” — that found me hard pressed to believe that Billy’s story was one that could be translated successfully into a Broadway musical. I remained skeptical until midway through the first act. I write to you now as a believer.
As a writer, I suppose it’s only natural that I’d deem the plot as being the night’s shining star and although Billy Elliot’s personal journey was clearly the main storyline, I was glad to see the 1984 conflict between the mining community and the English government being showcased as such a major focal point, for I don’t think it was represented with as much importance in the film. When the full cast burst onto the stage to begin the show with a rousing performance of “The Stars Look Down”, an ode to the ongoing struggles of the miners and their impending strike, I felt a sudden sense of urgency, as if they were demanding I join their cause and as the show went on, I experienced the ups and downs of working class living (“Solidarity”, “Once We Were Kings”) right along with them. It was an aspect of the show that hit extremely close to home, as the unemployment rate in Ohio seems to increase monthly and outsourcing runs rampant, and I applaud its creators for accepting the responsibility of educating along with entertaining. (I felt similarly about scenes between Billy and a character named Michael, a boy with a strong affinity for wearing his mother’s clothing who eventually kissed Billy, but was still treated with tolerance and friendliness.)
Amidst all the chaos, eleven year old Billy Elliot took center stage. Standing on the edge of adolescence and wondering where he fit into a world that was rapidly spiraling out of control, the steps he took towards finding himself are steps we’ve likely all taken. He was held down by circumstance, ridiculed and cut down by his own family, and riddled with his own self doubt, but overcame the odds to do what he wanted to do. While it certainly won’t always be as easy as it is in musicals, Billy’s story is one that we should all be able to identify with, even if we don’t aspire to be dancers. Everyone has a dream and everyone will have someone tell them its impossible. The moral of Billy Elliot, at least in my eyes, is to stay true to who you want to be and never listen to those who doubt you. Dare to be different and as long as you don’t let yourself think it’s impossible, it isn’t.
The choreography was absolutely outstanding, which I suppose should be expected from a show about dancing, and there were several types of dance aside from ballet, including jazz and tap, that were incorporated into most of the show’s numbers. Ty Forhan, the thirteen year old Canadian who is one of four actors playing Billy, completely blew me away with how effortlessly he moved across the stage and also with how easily he seemed to manage even the most difficult looking routines. The same can definitely be said for the many other child performers in the show, who reached a level of professional synchronization when performing together that is probably hard to achieve for seasoned veterans of the theater, let alone junior high schoolers. I also found it extremely refreshing to see that the cast was diverse in terms of the body types you might expect in such a high energy show and that even those who weren’t stick figures or prima ballerinas delivered their steps with talent and precision. Unfortunately, I wasn’t nearly as moved by the music as I was by the plot or the movement itself. Sir Elton John’s score was good, but not what I’ve come to expect from such a legendary artist and nowhere near as iconic of music he’s written for other musicals in the past. I also wish he’d have taken a crack at writing the lyrics because those, by far, were the biggest gripe for me in a show where I found little. The plot is so impactful and relatable, but I found what could have been great moments getting bogged down with cliches and moments that weren’t great to begin with being ruined by them (“Born to Boogie”).
That’s not to say that there weren’t some outright musical triumphs. The show featured some excellent ballads in the form of “Electricity”, which is a part of Billy’s audition for the Royal Ballet School and will leave you inspired to go out and chase your own dream after hearing it, and “Dear Billy”, a duo of connected songs that feature Billy and his deceased mother communicating to each other words they wish they could’ve said over a sparse arrangement. The latter led to many leaking eyes in the audience, mine included, and allowed me to connect with Billy in a natural, vulnerable way. There were also some stellar achievements in musical comedy, including a song from Billy’s grandmother entitled “We’d Go Dancing” that just might have been my favorite of the night. It found her reminiscing negatively over her long gone husband and then suddenly drifting away into happy thoughts of them dancing together, only to snap back to reality and lament: “But then in the morning, we were sober”. And while I may not have loved the score, there is no denying the talent showcased by the show’s tremendous touring orchestra, which also included several of our fine local musicians. Through the use of traditional British brass instruments, long associated with the coal mines, they almost made me forget I was inside of a theater for a minute.
There were many achievements visually as well. The sets themselves were far removed from the world depicted in the film, bright and colorful, but still fit the lower middle class setting, even in all their beauty and detail. And while they used pieces of the same set for several different scenes, there was always just enough of a change added to not make it repetitive. I also found myself enthralled by scenes of Billy dancing alone with a lone spotlight on him, his massive silhouette performing behind him, and of a segment which featured a Billy dancing completely in sync with an older version of himself that resulted in the former flying around the rafters on a cable. In a play that was so real, I appreciated those few, short moments of ethereal fantasy, as they added even more to the feeling that dreams, no matter how wild, can come true.
Many would argue that to see a Broadway show off Broadway is to not see one at all. I have had the pleasure of doing both and can say, without a doubt, that I have never left a show more inspired than I did when I left Billy Elliot and I saw it five miles away from my home. Sure, there were some things about it I didn’t like, but those things are superficial complaints compared to the feeling I have now in the pit of my stomach. The feeling like I can do anything. I hope you’ll see this show and feel the same. — JS / SPNFD
Billy Elliot is running through Sunday (3/25) at The Palace Theatre. Check the links below for more details!
CAPA - www.capa.com