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Theater Review: Billy Elliot settles into long run at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre

May 12, 2010

At center, Patrick Mulvey (Tony) and Cynthia Darlow (Grandma), surrounded by miners, in Oriental Theatre's production of Billy Elliot. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Bill Beard

Chicago has waited a long time for Billy to come to town; Billy Elliot the Musical, that is. We were promised the first “out-of-New York” location and a “long-as-tickets-keep-selling” run, rather than just the usual national tour two weeks.

Now, it’s here. This production has been hyped perhaps more than any other “Broadway in Chicago” offering for some years. It has garnered such fantastic accolades as: “Sensational!” “A Triumph!” “Breathtakingly brilliant!” “The best show of the decade!” even “The best show you will ever see!” And even though this hype is overdone, over the top, it is nonetheless a terrific show, a true “feel good” story, a tale of unusual, yet everyday struggle and success. It is worth putting on your “absolutely must see” list.

The original film of Billy Elliot came out in 2000 and won multiple awards in its country of origin, England, and several Oscar nominations here in the USA. This is a simple, but important, story of a young boy in a working-class family in the heart of central England’s coal-mining district who finds himself inexplicably drawn from his local gym boxing class to the adjacent ballet class next door. He is immediately captivated, realizes he is hooked, and must follow his heart and inner spirit to pursue dance with a passion. (Personal note: This story speaks eloquently to those of us who have long mourned the increasing inequality between the arts and sports in American society; the dwindling support and encouragement of the arts, versus the financial marketing and hyping of sports.)

The setting of the story is right in the middle of the 1983-84 strike by England’s National Union of Mineworkers, against the union-crushing determination of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government. In the film, this creates a gritty, but factual, picture of the struggling working class life, where Billy’s dreamed-of escape from grim reality into a world of beauty appears even more of a challenge. And Billy’s valiant effort to reach up and to pursue his dream, his battle against all odds, personal, family and society, proves to be more than enough to keep an audience enthralled; even more so when one sees the eventual transforming effect on those he loves—his father, brother, his mentor dance teacher, and the entire community around him. The movie was an all-time hit; but in it, the political dispute over union demands was kept as a subplot. Its purpose was to establish foundation, the everyday world Billy must rise above.

Not so in the musical theater version.

When the movie’s original creative team—Director Stephen Daldry, Writer Lee Hall and Choreographer Peter Darling—decided to turn Billy Elliot into a stage musical, with Sir Elton John as the composer, they evidently felt the need for some modification. Big musicals need a big chorus, preferably with a strong, enhanced purpose. What better than a stage full of 20-plus angry striking coal miners, cops and families? So, now the Strike has become dominant. Its importance to the family, the town and the nation is now passionate, explosive and overwhelming. This is no longer primarily a poignant and powerful story of a young boy finding within himself the strength and determination to rise above his fate and soar with the eagles; it is also a rather rough and violent portrayal of one of society’s oldest battles, the exploitation of the common man by wealth and politics.

Even the glorious ending of the movie, showing the peak of the grown-up Billy’s Royal Ballet career, dancing the spectacular lead in Mathew Bourne’s Swan Lake, is here replaced with a male chorus of union mineworkers being forced back down into the mines, defeated and devastated. What a downer!

Yet, in spite of what this reviewer feels is the betrayal of a heartwarming story of one boy’s fight for personal artistic expression, to develop it into a large-scale, spectacular show the theater world expects these days…in spite of that, Billy Elliot the Musical is extraordinary. It is stunning and impressive.

The cast is generally excellent. The roles of Billy’s father and brother are spot on. Armand Schultz as Dad is every bit as strong and sensitive as Gary Lewis in the film; Patrick Mulvey is vibrant as Tony, the brother; and as Mrs. Wilkinson, the ballet teacher, Emily Skinner matches every perfect quality of the movie’s magnificent Julie Walters. The endearing Gabriel Rush makes Billy’s best friend, Michael, into the funny and flamboyant, but absolutely lovable, enfant terrible!

The demanding title role of 12-year-old Billy has always been played in London, Sydney and New York at alternating performances by one of three young actor/dancers. In Chicago, the producers added a fourth. The opening night performance starred Cesar Corrales, the only one of the four who played the role on Broadway. I understand the Chicago critics raved. I saw the show several nights later, when the fourth young performer, 12-year-old J.P. Viernes, performed.

J.P. is a brilliant young dancer; in fact, he commands the stage very well. He is small of stature, and indeed looks even younger than 12. I have only the movie for comparisons; in which, of course, the remarkable Jamie Bell set the standard for this role. J.P. is an exquisite-looking young man; but the role of Billy requires extraordinary energy and personal power. It actually demands the inner sensitivity and instincts of a much older performer. I’m sure that J.P. will develop and grow into the role and “make it his own.” And he has plenty of time. Billy Elliot the Musical is already booking through October at the Oriental Theatre; and as mentioned, they plan to keep it here as long as tickets sell.

But don’t wait too long. Performances are already selling out. For information and reservations, call 800-775-2000 or visit www.BroadwayinChicago.com.

From the May 12-18, 2010 issue

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