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'Billy Elliot: The Musical'

by Elizabeth McPherson

June 26, 2010 -- Imperial Theatre, New York

“Billy Elliot” is an engaging, full-spectacle Broadway production. Dancing, elaborate costumes, song, heart-wrenching story – all of the elements are there. In that, it is successful, and will probably continue to be for some time. The theatre was packed the night I attended. However, it does not quite make the leap to the caliber of show that will go down in history as breaking barriers or introducing new concepts, shows like “A Chorus Line,” “The Lion King,” “Cats,” “Hair,” “West Side Story,” or any show with choreography by Bob Fosse.

It is not an easy task to take a movie and turn it into a show (as the producers of “Billy Elliot” have done) because there are elements that do not translate, and so have to be re-envisioned. Some of the intimacy between the characters is lost in this translation of “Billy Elliot,” and this was my biggest disappointment. The relationships between Billy and his brother, and Billy and his best friend were shallow, and these relationships were important to the development of the story. However, there were other relationships that were more fulfilled: Billy and his father, Billy and his dead mother, and Billy and his grandmother.

As to performers, Carole Shelley as the grandmother and Jake Evan Schwencke as Mike, Billy’s best friend, just about stole the show with their dead-on comic timing, and funny lines. As the dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson, Kate Hennig was also a highlight. Mrs. Wilkinson’s care for Billy on a deep level, but seeming lack of care on the surface is a duality difficult to convey, and yet Hennig did it expertly. She made the audience care about Billy’s fate.

Liam Redhead who played Billy in this evening’s performance is an exquisite dancer. Viewing this young dancer early in his career -- his lines, beautiful “a la seconde” turns, clarity, and musicality were worth the ticket price alone. He seems a dancer in the Balanchine mode, much less about musical theatre, than pure dance unadulterated with emotion. Even so, he played his character well. His monologue on why Billy dances was particularly moving. His duet with New York City Ballet dancer Stephen Hanna was poignant in seeing a young emerging dancer side by side with a dancer in his prime. By the way, Redhead held his own!

The choreography by Peter Darling was wonderful in its maneuvering of large groups of people around the space. Dance sequences of particularly note were the dancers in oversized clothes, the riot number with the police holding shields, and the moments when the police, miners, and little girls in tutus all intermingled but kept separate parts of the plot going. The choreography for Billy showed his exceptional dance skills, but something of the interplay of tap and ballet created a disconnect. Billy studying ballet was the key portion of the plot, yet Billy tap danced to further and express different parts of the story. So ballet was the plot, and tap was used to convey the plot – hard to suspend disbelief here.

The music by Elton John served the musical, but is certainly not memorable. I am a person who easily gets melodies stuck in my head for days, and not a single one from “Billy Elliot” stuck, for even an hour. But I may be alone in my critiques, as the audience jumped to their feet for the curtain call and applauded wildly – not to mention the numerous awards the musical has garnered.

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