BILLY ELLIOT Dances His Way Into Your Heart

by Arnie Finkel

Lex Ishimoto (Billy) and Maximilien A. Baud (Older Billy) in BILLY ELLIOT the Musical. (Photo credit: Michael Brosilow)

BILLY ELLIOT is one hell of a dance drama.  It’s a very satisfying piece of musical theater.  The show encompasses many styles of dance to tell its story—ballet, tap, hip-hop, street and modern; and all of them done extremely well by a cast of 45 talented singer-dancers.

The plot line tells of Billy’s journey of self discovery from a boy who prefers dancing to boxing; through his family’s disapproval; through his developing talent; to his acceptance at the Royal Ballet School.  This story is set against the struggles of the Union Miners of the town in Northern England during the year long strike against Maggie Thatcher’s government.  This makes for strong stuff.  The book and lyrics by Lee Hall (who also wrote the screen play the show is based upon) managed to balance the two parts with room enough for a welcome amount of laughs.

Elton John provided the score.  While not his best theater work,  John has included workmen songs ( the opening chorus,”THE STARS LOOK DOWN“,  “SOLIDARITY” and the final chorus “ONCE WE WERE KINGS“); a semi-folk song(“DEEP INTO THE GROUND”):  comedy numbers (Grandma’s “WE’D GO DANCING” and Billy and his best friend Michael’s ‘EXPRESSING YOURSELF”) ; sentimental and effective scenes(“DEAR BILLY”); and born to dance numbers(“SHINE” “WE WERE BORN TO BOOGIE” and especially “ELECTRICITY”).   The music is used in the production as a welcome break from the tension of the script.  The songs for the most part do not advance the plot as much of today’s musical theater pieces do.  That’s not to say that they are not effective—they are.

There are four boys who alternate as Billy.  The part is exhausting and takes a real talent to pull them off.  Extensive dancing-lots of singing and some tough dramatic scenes.  The evening I was there Lex Ishimoto, a 13 year old from Irvine California, was Billy.  I don’t see how anyone could do a better job.  He was plainly terrific.  His scene with Ben Cook as Michael was outstanding.  His solo work in “ELECTRICITY” was nothing short of stupendous as was his dance duet with an older Billy to part of SWAN LAKE.

Leah Hocking plays Mrs. Wilkinson, the heart-of-gold ballet teacher who discovers and molds Billy’s talent, so naturally that I felt as though I knew her.  She is a force of nature on the stage.   Cynthia Darlow has her bright moments as Grandma.  She is responsible for a lot of laughter.

Rich Hebert as Billy’s Dad is very believable.  He is a solid presence who handles the vocal demands easily.  Tony, Billy’s brother, is played by Cullen Titmas with strength and righteous anger.

The whole cast is near perfect.

Lex Ishimoto (Billy) in BILLY ELLIOT the Musical at the Kimmel Center. (Photo credit: Michael Brosilow)

Director Stephen Daldry has an eye for the proper gesture at the proper time.  He pays attention to the little things that make the performance real.  I was especially impressed with the use of pauses.

Choreographer Peter Darling has a daunting task in a show so dance centered.  I was astounded by the many ways he found to use a simple prop like a chair.  Although I must admit I found the slow motion work of the male dancers in Gramdma’s song fascinating, it actually distracted from her big number.  Darling gave Billy wings and did that well.

The set designed by Ian MacNeil did just what you’d want it to.  The pieces slid in and out and worked to define areas, but didn’t detract in any way.

BILLY ELLIOT is a block buster.  Everyone connected with it should be proud of their work. Don’t miss it!!

Book and Lyrics By Lee Hall
Directed by Stephen Daldry
November 16 to 27, 2011
Academy of Music
Broad and Locust Sts.
Philadelphia, PA

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