May 2016 | Volume 143
The cast of Billy Elliot. Photo by David Cooper.
I’d describe Billy Elliot as a feel-good/feel-terrible/feel-great musical. But however you describe it, it’s going to be a huge hit for the Arts Club this spring and summer, and rightly so. Bill Millerd’s production features a breakout performance from young Nolan Fahey in the title role, terrific choreography from Valerie Easton, a wonderful cast of veterans and cute kids, and a very strong story. Even the North England accents sound good. I found Elton John’s music relatively forgettable, but this is a show about dancing and in that department you get more than your money’s worth.
The feel-good story, adapted by Lee Hall from his screenplay for the 2000 movie, is that classic musical theatre trope, the triumph of the underdog. But Billy’s is a bittersweet triumph, set against the failure of the 1984 coal miners’ strike in the Durham village where he lives with his dad, older brother and grandma. The nasty, lengthy strike pitted the powerful National Union of Miners against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a bout of class warfare that Thatcher’s Conservatives won unequivocally, breaking the back of the union and, from the perspective of the play, destroying the economy of the region. The politics of these events obviously have much more resonance in the UK than here. Despite the play’s total sympathy for the striking miners and their working class cause, it’s Billy’s cause with its issues of individualism, gender and culture that we care most about.
While grandma (Barbara Pollard), Dad (Warren Kimmel), angry brother Tony (a searing Danny Balkwill) and their fellow miners suffer through the strike, 12-year-old Billy is sent to take boxing lessons with a few other scrawny boys. Repelled by boxing, Billy instead finds himself attracted by the ballet class that follows, and proves pretty good pretty quickly. Frustrated by the talentless group of girls in pink tutus that she has to teach, tough Mrs. Wilkinson (the excellent Catriona Murphy) makes Billy a special project, convincing him he can do it with a song that says, “all you really have to do is shine.” It’ll actually take a lot more than just personality, of which Billy has little, but he will do it.
Naturally, when Dad and Tony find out he’s dancing, they’re outraged. Any boy doing ballet must be a “poof” or a “fruit.” The beautiful counterpoint to that idea is presented in a scene with Billy’s irrepressible gay friend Michael (the irrepressible Valin Shinyea), who likes to dress in his sister’s clothes and says to Billy, “You did ballet? That’s fucking weird.” When they sing and dance their duet “Expressing Yourself,” backed by a chorus of large blokes in drag, it’s Billy and Michael 2, working class homophobia 0.
Mrs. Wilkinson eventually overcomes the family’s objections, and the striking miners rise to the occasion in a scene that feels a little too good to be true, rallying around Billy – who in less than a year has become an extraordinary dancer – and contributing their last few quid to fund his audition for the Royal Ballet School. He wins, they lose, but in the triumphant song-and-dance finale everyone goes home happy.
A new kid on the professional musical theatre block, Nolan Fahey is a revelation. His perfectly understated Billy develops in subtle gradations from skinny klutz to beautiful dancer over the course of the play without ever losing the klutziness. His singing voice is sweet but nothing special. In fact there’s nothing much special at all about this lonely kid who talks to his dead mum (Leora Joy Perrie) until about a third of the way through the show when we begin to see his dancing chops. He can tap, fling himself around the stage with athletic fury (“Angry Dance”) and express his balletic originality (“Electricity”). In the Swan Lake pas de deux Billy dances with an older version of himself (Matthew Cluff), we ultimately see what an exquisite talent this kid is.
And what wonderful choreography Val Easton gives him (with Suzanne Ouellette as Ballet Advisor). Easton also makes the dancing school classes really fun, and her choreography of the Act One number “Solidarity,” juxtaposing the striking miners, brutal police and dancing children, is outstanding.
Alison’s Green’s costumes are naturalistic and tacky in just the right 1980s proportion. Ken Cormier’s six-piece offstage orchestra provides a full sound for the 20 performers who have plenty of room to dance on Ted Roberts’ uncluttered stage with its set pieces representing multiple locations flying briskly in and out.
Sweet, ugly and inspirational in turn, Billy Elliot the Musical sends all sorts of useful messages: you can do it, follow your dream, but stay out of the pit. And to be able to dance is a beautiful thing.
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