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A CurtainUp Review
Billy Elliot the Musical

. . .It's a feeling that you can't control
I suppose it's like forgetting, losing who you are
And at the same time something makes you whole
. . .And then I feel a change
Like a fire deep inside
Something bursting me wide open
Impossible to hide
And suddenly I'm flying
Flying like a bird
Like Eeectricity, electricity
Sparks inside of me/
And I'm free
I'm free.

— lyrics to "Electricity", Billy's show stopping explanation of how dancing makes him feel ."
The 3 alternating Billy Elliots (top to bottom): David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish
How did I feel watching Billy Elliot the Musical? To borrow a bit from Billy's eloquent, show stopping answer to the Royal Ballet School admissions panelist who asks him to explain what it feels like when he's dancing: it was a little "like forgetting, losing who you are. . .like electricity, electricity!"

I was engaged enough to vicariously thrill to Billy's gradually feeling something move inside him when he danced. I felt I was in Mrs. Wilkinson's class learning to pirouette and felt like leaping out of my seat as Billy leaped to ever more thrilling heights. His painful yearning for his dead mother brought tears to my eyes.

The motherless boy for whom ballet becomes a release from the sadness and drabness of his life in a dinosaur coal mining town is, of course, the cynosure of this extraordinarily touching and beautiful musical. But the entire enterprise sparkles and crackles with electricity, and brings an emotionally, aurally and visually engaging musical to Broadway, where it deserves to have a long life, as it's already having in London. Which brings us to the question of how the show has fared in its move across the pond, with only the wonderful Haydn Quinn on board as Mrs. Wilkinson, the teacher who recognizes and nurtures Billy's talent. The answer: very well indeed!

Trent Kowalik, the Billy I saw last night, is an amazing triple threat. In addition to the spectacular dancing talent that put him in the running for the part, he's also a savvy young actor who's learned to convey Billy's yearnings with his body movements, and to sing Elton John's songs with clarity and feeling. From what I've heard from other critics and readers who saw David Alvarez or Kent Kulish, who alternate with Kowalik, each brings something special to the role, and each is outstanding. Given how the almost three hours flew by, I'd go back any time to see the other Billys, not to make comparisons, but to once again experience "the sparks inside of me" that seeing the show set off.

In the role-sharing part of Michael, Billy's friend whose penchant for dressing up in his mum and sister's dresses makes him an oddball in a place dominated by macho males, I saw Frank Dolce giving a funny and endearing performance. Given the large cast, it's impossible to comment on everyone, but Gregory Jbara deserves a Tony for best supporting player in a musical as Billy's Dad who makes as big a journey as his son.

The rest of Billy's family, Santino Fontana as his older brother, and Carole Shelley as his grandmother also make strong impressions, with Shelley especially touching when she sings "We'd Go Dancing" which, as Lizzie Loveridge pointed out in her review exemplifies Lee Hall's witty mix of nostalgia and realism. (It's fun to see Daniel Oreskes, usually in Shakespear dramas, as Big Davey).

The London review provides the plot details as well as the high points of the eye-popping scenery, costumes and choreography: The informative opening video footage. . . the stirring images and anthems depicting the coal miners' solidarity. . . the scene where Billy stumbles into Mrs Wilkinson's ballet class. . . the incredibly inventive tap dance featuring Billy and Michael and a dance ensemble as headless dancing dresses on hangers . . the enormous Thatcher puppets in the second act's Christmas pantomine . . . the stunning Swan Lake duet by Billy and his older self (a magnificent Stephen Hanna). . .and Billy's electrifying "Electricity." I've therefore re-posted Lizzie's review which you can read either by scrolling down past the song list or clicking here for the London Review).

This is an expensive show and a cast with so many children, many of whom will outgrow their dancing shoes and require re-training replacements. That and concerns about a story set in the coal fields of Northern England and about a community and industry devastated by the Thatcher government, not resonating with American audiences accounts for the three year delay in bringing it here. As it turns out, the state of our current economy has made it all too easy to identify with this story. All sorts of American towns have become ghost towns and workers in blue and white color areas have been made obsolete by outsourcing. And Billy's achieving his dream of becoming a dancer makes for a bittersweet happy ending no matter where the audience lives.

Oh, and don't rush out of your seat. There's a priceless encore!

Billy Elliott The Musical
Book and lyrics by Lee Hall, based on the Universal Pictures/Studio Canal film
Music by Elton John
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Choreography by Peter Darling
Cast: Haydn Gwynne (Mrs. Wilkinson), Gregory Jbara (Dad), Carole Shelley (Grandma), Santino Fontana (Tony), David Bologna and Frank Dolce (Michael) and David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish (Billy), Joel Hatch (George), Erin Whyland (Debby), Mitchell Michaliszyn, Matthew Mindler (Small Boy), Daniel Oreskes (Big Davey ), Stephanie Kurtzuba ( Lesley), Donnie Kehrs(Scab/Posh Dad), Leah Hockings ( Mum), Thommie Retters (Mr. Braithwaite), Stephen Hannas (Older Billy/Scottish Dancer), Klean Johnsons (Posh Boy ), Jayne Pat'ersons (Clipboard Woman)
"Expressing Yourself" Dancers: Kevin Bernard, Grady Mcleod Bowmans Jeff Kready, Stephanie Kurtzuba, David Larsen,Darrell Grand Moultrie, Jamie Torcellini, Grantturner
Ensemble: Kevin Bernard, Grady Mcleod Bowman, Eric Gunhus, Stephen Hanna, Leah Hocking, Aaron Kaburick, Donnie Kehr, Jeff Kready, Stephanie Kurtzuba, David Larsen, Merle Louise, Darrell Grand Moultrie, Daniel Oreskes, Jayne Paterson, Thommie Retter, Jamie Torcellini. Grant Turner
Ballet Girls: Juliette Allen Angelo. Heather Ann Burns, Eboni Edwards. Meg Guzulescu, Izzy Hanson-Johnston, Caroline London, Marina Micalizzi, Tessa Netting, Corrieanne Stein, Casey W Hyland
Sets by Ian MacNeil
Costumes by Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting by Rick Fisher
Sound by Paul Arditti
Production stage manager: Bonnie L. Becker
Hair, wig and makeup design by Campbell Young
Music supervision and orchestrations by Martin Koch
Music director: David Chase.
Imperial Theater, 249 West 45th Street, Manhattan, (212) 239-6200.
Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes with intermission.
Tuesdays 7pm, Wed to Sat 8pm, Wed and Sat at 2pm, Sundays at 3pm
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer November 18, 2008
Closing Jan. 8, 2012 after a 3-year run.
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • The Stars Look Down (The eve of the Miners' Strike 1984)/Company
  • Shine/ Mrs. Wilkinson, Ballet Girls, Billy
  • We'd Go Dancing/Grandma, Men's Ensemble
  • Solidarity/Solidarity/Company
  • Expressing Yourself/Villy, Michael, Ensemble
  • Dear Billy (Mum's Letter)/Billy, Mrs. Wilkinson, Mum
  • Born to Boogie/ Billy, Mrs. Wilkinson, Mr. Braithwaite
  • Angry Dance/Billy, Men's Ensemble
Act Two
  • Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher/ Company
  • Deep Into the Ground/Dad/Company
  • He Could Go and He Could Shine/ Dad, Tony, Ensemble
  • Electricity/Billy
  • Once We Were Kings/Company
  • Dear Billy (Billy's Reply).Billy, Mum
  • Company Celebration/Company

Stephen Daldry's delightful film Billy Elliot has made the transition to West End musical whilst remaining true to its roots: the struggle in the 1980s when Britain's coal miners went on strike to keep their jobs and lost to the forces of Margaret Thatcher's hard line Tory government. Of course, unlike many other film to musical adaptations, this one has only been a few years from award winning film to first night in the theatre. It has undoubtedly helped in recreating the original to have retained the same director, Stephen Daldry, the same writer, Lee Hall, and the same choreographer, Peter Darling. The only element that has changed radically is the music. Elton John has composed the music, which in the original film was mostly by Mark Bolam's T Rex with other tracks from The Clash and The Style Council. Billy Elliot the musical is refreshing, gritty, poignant, outlandish, funny, original and I would guess set to grace the London stage for some time.

The story is a simple one but it engenders a complexity of emotional response. Set in county Durham, against the backdrop of the strike which lasted twelve months, motherless eleven year old Billy (Liam Mower, George Maguire, James Lomas) stumbles into a girls' ballet class run by Mrs Wilkinson (Haydn Gwynn). Without his family knowing, Billy continues to come to the dance class and Mrs Wilkinson, recognising a talent, wants him to audition for the Royal Ballet School in London. Billy befriends oddball Michael (Ryan Longbottom) who likes dressing up in his mother's clothes. Meanwhile Billy's father (Tim Healy) and brother (Joe Caffrey) are too pre-occupied with the daily battle with policemen in riot gear protecting "scab" workers or strike breakers who are seen only to be prolonging the strike. On one side of the picket line are well-paid police and "scab" miners, on the other, hungry, striking miners with a very few pounds in strike pay and donations. The North of England is not known for its liberal attitudes towards dance and homosexuality. Up there, the men are beer swilling, unemancipated "real men". The journey made in Billy Elliot is that of the father coming to terms with his son's desire to be a dancer and the realisation that, without the backing of governments, the traditional employment alternative, coal mining, is a dying profession.

The opening is wonderful, video footage shows the twentieth century news footage history of the mines and "The Stars Look Down" is a stirring avowal of brotherhood and community amongst coal miners. The first magnificently choreographed number is the upbeat "Shine" as Mrs Wilkinson's ballet class are put through their (deliberately clumsy) paces in ballet-tap and end up in an exuberant fan dance. Billy's grandmother (Ann Emery) evokes her youth with her husband, in "We'd Go Dancing" Lee Hall's wittily unexpected nostalgic realism writing,
"I hated the sod - for thirty three year/We never should have married of that I'm quite clear/He spent the housekeeping money on whisky and beer. . . " becomes wildly romantic "But we'd go dancing and he'd hold me tight/He was air, He was water, He was breath, He was light" but in the morning she sings of sobering up. During this song the drinking miners dance, ducking and diving in and out of pub doors and windows.

"Solidarity" is a three way number, rhythmically very like something upbeat from Cabaret. It starts with the police full of themselves, taunting the miners with comic choreography, straightening their ties, brushing their epaulettes, adjusting their helmets. The miners reply and the ballet class are caught in the middle as miners and policemen dance pas de deux with prepubescent girls. I loved the original moves and the transition into a clog/welly dance with dance steps turning the knees this way and that, like doing the Charleston sideways without the arm movements.

The comedic hit of the show is the introduction of cross dressing eleven year old Michael (Ryan Longbottom). His sexually explicit language is something you might like to think about before taking children to Billy Elliot but in context, for adults, this scene had the audience in stitches. "Expressing Yourself" turns into a tap dance from Billy and Michael with dancers disguised as frocks on a rail complete with hangers in a bizarre, surreal, dream-like interlude. The romantic ballad "Dear Billy (Mam's letter)" is pretty and emotive as Billy reads a letter written for him by his mother (Stepahnie Putson) when she knew she wouldn't live to see him grow up. This heart warming song may make a successful single. The first act ends on Billy's rebellious dance expressing his turmoil while behind him as the strike hardens there is a line of police in full riot gear with riot shields.

Act Two starts with the miners' social club panto with the injection of an enormous Thatcher puppet meistress as the miners face up to Christmas with nothing. I liked this overstated scene least especially as I remember the one it replaces, the breaking of Mrs Elliot's piano in the film to provide firewood. It may have been included to answer critics of the film who wanted more politics and less sentiment but I disagree. Another departure from the film is that here Billy dances a classical ballet duet with his older self (Isaac James) to Tchaikovsky. Billy is raised high up to float above the stage on a wire in this lovely scene. However the musical loses the film's last scene where ten, twelve years on, Billy's father and brother meet grown up Michael at the ballet in London where Billy is appearing in Matthew's Bourne's Swan Lake. The Second Act is not as strong as the first. Mrs Wilkinson and Mr Elliot confront and then relent, Billy travels to London where the vibrant dance "Electricity" assures him of a place. The miners are defeated but this bleak outlook is alleviated by Billy's breaking away for his own future. A fantasy encore finale allows the little girls to show that they can dance in perfect synchronisation.

Hats off to the casting directors! The casting of the children is superb. The success of Billy Elliot rests on their consistent talent. I saw twelve year old Liam Mower play Billy and his dancing is just gorgeous. In the theatre there are no close ups to show the mixed emotions Billy feels. Instead the body language expression is in the movement. I really admire the casting too of these burly men who dance. Where ever did the casting director find these heavy, authentic looking miner/dancers? Haydn Gwynn's lanky, world weary Mrs Wilkinson is a comically tall figure, a little like Joyce Grenfell, attempting to drill her assorted ducklings into dancing like swans. I particularly liked George (Trevor Fox), the ballet class pianist, a bulky lad who joins in the dance numbers with a lumbering gusto.

The substance of this musical is not in the sets which convey realistic place without taking centre stage. I liked the lighting effects for scenes like the one where Billy dances silhouetted against the line of riot policemen. The skill is that one is swept along by the story, the detail contributing to the whole rather than distracting from it.

Billy Elliot is a very fine British musical from the talented Stephen Daldry with great ensemble performances. There is a good helping of eccentricity and humour alongside a more sobering subject matter achieving that rare phenomenon, a musical that makes you think. I loved Peter Darling's choreography and Lee Hall's lyrics. No-one could object to Elton John's pleasant tunes and because most are only heard once, they may become more memorable when given a chance " to grow on one". This is a musical, the British audience will want to return to. Even as early as the opening night, I met enthusiastic people already seeing it again.
Billy Elliot
Original Music by Elton John
Book and Lyrics: Lee Hall
Directed by Stephen Daldry

Starring: Haydn Gwynn, Tim Healy, Liam Mower
With: Ann Emery, Trevor Fox, Steve Elias, Stephanie Putson, Isaac James, Daniel Coll, Erica Ann Deakin, Alex Delamere, Damien Delaney, Susan Fay, Alan Forrester, Chris Hornby, Gillian Kirkpatrick, Chris Lennon, David Massey, Michelle McAvoy, Karl Morgan, Daniel Page, Steve Paget, Lee Proud, Mike Scott, Phil Snowden, Tessa Worsley, Ryan Longbottom, Lucy Stephenson, Alice Stephens, Jennifer Veal, Elie Woolf, Katie Stephens, Christie Halsey, Charlotte Hamilton, Emily Neil, Poppy Coggins, Stephanie Rawson, Michaela Blake, Dean Charles Chaman, Hugh Wyld
Choreographer: Peter Darling
Set Designer: Ian Macneil
Costume Designer: Nicky Gillibrand
Musical Supervisor and Orchestrations: Martin Koch
Musical Director: Philip Bateman
Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher
Sound: Paul Arditti
Running time: Three hours with one interval
Box Office: 0870 895 5577
Booking to 22nd October 2005.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 11th May 2005 performance at the Victoria Palace, Victoria Street, London SW1 (Rail/Tube: Victoria)
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