Book/Lyrics: Lee Hall
Music: Elton John
Directed: Stephen Daldry
Choreography: Peter Darling
By now you have formed some opinion of the stage musical Billy Elliot, whether you have seen it or not. Maybe you saw the movie, didn’t like it and won’t see the musical. Maybe you’re sick of everyone you know telling you how great it is, and went saw it for yourself. Maybe you’re seeing it for eleventh time. These are all viable options. Either way, you know it’s in town. How couldn’t you? The coverage has been massive. From every cab top to every fan board, Billy Elliot has beaten our brains in, letting us know he has arrived in Chicago.
Any show that wins 10 Tony Awards, is expected to create a buzz. Especially a show that has enough glowing testimonials from every U.S./British media outlet, they could wall paper the entire Chicago theatre district with them…with paper to spare. It’s the most popular musical to come out of Britain…ever. But let’s recap the story for those who may be reading about this show for the first time.
The story takes place in a northern England town during the 1984 miners strike. Prime Minister Thatcher, an opponent to state-owned industry, was pushing for offshore energy solutions, thus leading the 300,000 plus workers to rise up and save their industry, towns, and families. The Elliot household, containing an eleven year old Billy, his brother Tony, his father, and his barely lucid Grandmother, has already been in turmoil since the passing of Mrs. Elliot, Billy’s mother. At such a young age, Billy has been left to grow up rather quickly, taking care of his grandmother while his brother and father are heading up the local charter of the miners strike.
After one of his boxing lessons, Billy is left alone in the gymnasium, in which a ballet class shortly follows. It is here where we learn that Billy’s secret dream is to be a dancer. Nurtured by the tough but caring ballet instructor Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy realizes his true potential, when he is primed for an audition at the Royal Ballet. Upon discovering this, Billy’s father is enraged that his son would take to such an effeminate hobby, and pulls Billy from any further lessons.
The storyline to this show is wonderful. Just like the Prime Minister is oppressing the miners, Billy’s father and brother, are keeping him from becoming something special. Mrs. Wilkinson urges Billy’s family and tries to get them to realize that Billy can fight for something and win, unlike the imminent doom of the mining concern. However, I was confused as to why this woman would take such an instant like to Billy without really seeing what he was capable of.
From a production value aspect, it doesn’t get any more impressive. The massive logo of the NUM (British National Union of Mineworkers) is constantly in the background, reminding us of the strike. The walls of the dance studio transform into the Elliot household, and back again, with high precision and detail. Billy’s dream sequences vary from the elegantly minimalist (a wonderful rendition of Swan Lake), to the wonderfully garish (the show stopping lights and brilliant costumes of “Expressing Yourself”). The acting is superb. Especially from the supporting characters like Billy’s cross-dressing buddy Michael, played by Keean Johnson/Dillon Stevens, and Mrs. Wilkinson’s slovenly piano playing assistant Mr. Braithwaite, played by Blake Hammond.
In order not to exhaust the child actors, there are five Billy Elliots to fill the roster spot on any given night…much like a pitching rotation. J.P. Viernes was our Billy for the evening, and was truly outstanding. Aside from handling a difficult northern English accent and high caliber acting/singing, J.P,’s dancing was truly awe inspiring. Pay special attention the aforementioned Swan Lake ballet number.
But aside from all “slickness” this show provides, we are still left with a musical. I tried to come to my senses and differentiate what I was seeing from what I was hearing. What I saw was an amazing show, what I heard was a score that left a lot to be desired.
This show is a testament to the death of old Broadway musical styling. It was a hodge-podge of different genres, without any real identity. The show is more lyrically challenged, than melodically. Before curtain my counterpart thought this show would be better served as a drama, with music. Not the straight up musical, as it is. He was right.
Let’s consider this: Elton John, who was most certainly signed only to add popularity to the show, wrote the music for Billy Elliot, not the lyrics or the song book. Lee Hall was in charge of that. Lee Hall may be well established, but he’s certainly no Bernie Taupin. Nor is Elton for that matter. Could you imagine if Bernie wrote the lyrics for this show? My point is this. Do not be misled by seeing Elton John’s name on the program as salvation to a revived piece of his formative years, or as the key asset to the shows success. There’s no Yellow Brick Road or Captain Fantastic milieu here.
With Billy Elliots success, comes more shows that will mimic its format, and further downgrade the quality of big musicals as we knew it. It will become more homogenized and corporate. But don’t worry, you’ll be too mesmerized to notice.
By John B. Reinhardt
Date Reviewed: 9/4/2010
At the Oriental Theatre/24 W. Randolph Chicago/ 800-775-2000, www.broadwayinchicago.com, tickets 30 -$100/ running time is 2 hours, 50 minutes with intermission/open run