Billy Elliott gives his soul to the dance; Berlioz’s Faust gives his to the Devil. Both heroes’ stories, albeit simple, call for a lot of apparatus in the telling. And neither on Broadway, where the musical version of the film Billy Elliot opened last week, nor at the Metropolitan Opera, where La Damnation de Faust was just unveiled in a new production by Robert Lepage, have their interpreters been stingy in the apparatus department. Both are enormous, elaborate, sometimes overloaded media spectacles.
This might not be a bad thing. Both Billy Elliot and La Damnation de Faust have big ambitions. Both play out their small-scale individual stories against the roilings of a larger world. Ten-year-old Billy’s dream of becoming a premier danseur has to battle not only familial prejudice, but the economic miseries of a Thatcher-era English coal town afflicted with a crippling miners’ strike; in the largest sense, its subject is an effort to break down gender stereotypes that reinforce the whole British class system. Faust’s story, which also traffics in gender stereotypes, literally makes the whole universe the scene of its struggle for one man’s soul, numbering entire populations among its choral supporting cast.
The problem, as always, is whether the big ambitions get fulfilled. Berlioz, who died long before the world had heard of Robert Lepage, comes off clean: Every fancy effect he desired for Faust he put into his orchestral writing. Though irresistible to any opera house with a sufficiently impassioned Faust, fetching Marguerite, or dashing Mephistopheles on its roster, the work is meant for concert performance; the Met was last tempted into staging it over a century ago, with the soprano Geraldine Farrar, whose beauty was so idolized that she became a movie star before movies had soundtracks.
Billy Elliot‘s adapters, in contrast, are also its source authors: Librettist Lee Hall and director Stephen Daldry were the original film’s screenwriter and director. Tchaikovsky, who wrote the show’s best number, was presumably not available to rewrite, but Elton John, who composed the remainder of the score, presumably was. The result is an oddly uneven work, full of beautiful and exhilarating moments, their energy dissipated by what looks like uncertainty of purpose: The creators don’t always seem sure what story to tell, where to focus in telling it, or how best to use the enormous resources at their command. It adds up to a kind of musical-theater tasting menu: A little Disney, a little docudrama, a little heightened realism à la Brecht, a little music-hall rowdiness, a little old-fashioned showbiz, and even a little Piscator-style Expressionist political theater.
This salad bar of approaches puts a terrible stylistic burden on the simple story, its elements familiar from many predecessor works—The Jazz Singer meets The Corn Is Green. Billy’s fascination with ballet removes him from the community’s cultural pattern, during an economic crisis that offers no leeway for such disruptions. Additionally, it raises a question of his sexual identity, which the authors spend way too much time trying to defuse through the invention of a contrasting figure, a pal of Billy’s who, alienated like him, is unlike him in being incipiently queer. It’s his fantasy that gets the Disney hoopla, in a number full of drag outfits that dance by themselves.
Though intermittent, Billy Elliot‘s pleasures are many. Three child actors alternate in the exhausting title role: David Alvarez, who played it at the first press performance, is touching and already a first-rate dancer. Much of Elton John’s score sounds trite, but a few of the earlier numbers have a pleasant show-tune bounce. Peter Darling’s choreography has some amusingly “real” moments (the terrible dancing in a little girls’ ballet class) and several that are just excellent dance. Haydn Gwynne paints a moving portrait of Billy’s angular, acerbic dance teacher; Santino Fontana ignites some fire in the confusingly written role of his older brother; Carole Shelley steals scenes impudently as his grandma. The show’s a mess, but it’s a likable, good-hearted, overstuffed mess; you’re more likely to go away feeling puzzled than feeling cheated by its unevenness.
Something similar applies to Robert Lepage’s staging of the Berlioz Faust, the Met debut of a director who’s brought off some thoroughly magical experiences. Anyone who’s seen his staging of Schoenberg’s Erwartung might have thought that the boldly dramatic forms of Berlioz’s work would be optimal material for him. Instead, apparently preoccupied by technology, Lepage here has largely left the music to fare for itself.
True, his images are often eye-catching: Soldiers march offstage backwards; peasants stride vertically through a proscenium-filling field of grass; satyrs hanging upside down clutch at tormented coryphées. But it all happens in a repetitive, programmatic manner that seems oblivious to the curving phrases and surging climaxes of this most Romantic of scores. For the third time in two years, a new Met production fills the stage with rows of cubicles, hampering the work’s spaciousness. The singing, particularly Susan Graham’s as Marguerite, is resplendent. James Levine, conducting, squeezes out every imaginable instrumental color and nuance of phrasing. But to stage La Damnation de Faust as a visual event seemingly detached from its music makes no sense; the music is the dramatic point.
If Noah Haidle’s Saturn Returns, next door in the Newhouse, has any dramatic point, it’s hard to perceive. Saturn, a slow-moving planet, supposedly produces a changed consciousness of life when it enters your astrological chart, about once every 30 years. But Haidle’s hero—played by three fine actors at 28, 58, and 88, respectively—remains the same stodgy, sardonic, otherwise traitless person throughout, while one appealing actress, Rosie Benton, tries to nudge change out of him as his wife, daughter, and home health aide. Short (75 minutes), slight, and sentimental, the play’s tidy cleverness seems as vapid as its hero, making the resources expended on it seem a more shocking waste than those poured, however erratically, into Faust or Billy Elliot.