LONDON—It’s not exactly a news flash that Billy Elliot—the Musical has Broadway blockbuster written all over it. Staged by Stephen Daldry (who also directed the film), with book and lyrics by Lee Hall (the original screenwriter) and new music by Elton John, the show is virtually critic-proof, which isn’t a bad thing given that, fun as it is, it’s not exactly the greatest work since Oklahoma! A modern-day musical with modern-day flaws, Billy Elliot fails to rouse with its uninspired rock score, occasionally clumsy book, treacly lyrics, and huffing, puffing dance numbers. What it does (novelty of all novelties) is tell a story—one that’s seemed destined, from its cinematic birth, for a life onstage. Reviewers may quibble about the mere adequacy of its parts, but the musical as a whole is remarkably satisfying. Despite the commercial obviousness of the production, the saga sucks you in. How often can you say that in this era of Spamalot spoof and jukebox junk?
The tale of a working-class English lad who discovers ballet through a teacher at the local gym, Billy Elliot tackles its story from a number of angles. First, there’s Billy’s home life, presided over by his battering ram of a father, a miner on strike like his eldest son, Tony. It’s a motherless household (though the character of Dead Mum makes ghostly appearances throughout) and, needless to say, not the kind of environment to encourage a boy’s more sensitive qualities. Then there’s the 1984 miners strike, a standoff between Margaret Thatcher’s government and the local union that has only deepened the gloom of a northern England town whose economy depends entirely on coal. The dance instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson (Haydn Gwynne, acquitting herself nicely in the Julie Walters role), provides another way in, serving as a surrogate mother figure for Billy. She challenges his dad’s hard-nosed refusal to let Billy dance and coaches him for the audition at the Royal Ballet School. Last but not least, there’s Billy’s best friend, who enjoys strutting around in his mother’s clothes and makeup and kissing Billy whenever he can. This isn’t so much a subplot as a way to push the queer envelope, which the creators do quite daringly (and admirably) for such a mega family hit.
Hall’s approach to the book is workmanlike—he builds the story with planks of lumber, one on top of the other, until a ramshackle structure emerges. Fortunately, it’s a cozy dwelling, one that draws you inside, even if at times you fear the whole thing might collapse on your head. John’s music is what you might expect—smooth, accessible, and ringingly familiar, though not particularly memorable, a point compounded by Hall’s lyrics, which induce instant forgetting. (Here’s a sampling of the amnesia on tap: “The stars look down upon our struggle/The stars look down and see the past/The stars look down and know a future bright at last”). “Electricity,” the song that accompanies the show’s big dance finale, somehow manages to seem sensational despite the fact that you’re hearing what could be the B side of one of John’s least catchy singles. Peter Darling’s effortful choreography includes more Savion Glover–style tap than classical ballet; often sensational, it always lets you see the cast sweat.
Daldry’s production keeps everything humming along, hitting emotional marks while building to Vegas-like crescendos of showmanship. Occasionally, the book’s abrupt shifts in tone (from the furious union ruckuses to the sappy dead-mother sequences to Billy mooning alone in his bedroom) can feel clumsy, but Daldry finds ways to return us to the story’s core—a kid’s uphill journey toward fulfilling a gift that, for boys in this milieu, isn’t just unappreciated but boisterously denigrated.
The role of Billy is so physically demanding that it requires three actors, who rotate performances. As a consequence, it’s not a star-making part in the sense of audience members building a relationship to a particular actor’s personal triumph (like Marissa Jaret Winokur in Hairspray). Yet the central theme—making an embattled dream come true—lends a kind of American Idol energy to the production that makes it easy to root for whoever’s playing Billy, and James Lomas (the Billy I caught) happily succeeded, to everyone’s audible delight.
Billy Elliot may not be the solution to our current musical-theater drought, but as international blockbusters go, it’s a winner—a global theatrical phenomenon that’s pretty good theater too.