Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Review: (Vancouver) Billy Elliot

The Dancing Lad
by Jay Catterson

At long last, Billy Elliot: The Musical triumphantly arrives in Vancouver nearly five years after opening on Broadway. Based on the hit film of the same name, the endearing story of a Northern England coalminer's son who gives up boxing for  ballet was adapted for the stage by the film's original creative team: director Stephen Daldry and writer Lee Hall (book and lyrics). Featuring music by Elton John, Billy Elliot The Musical has since gone on to win four Olivier Awards and 10 Tony Awards including Best Musical, and has spawned several hit productions around the globe. 

Due to the rigorous physical demands of the show, the North American touring cast features four child actors who alternate the role of Billy Elliot; Drew Minard took on the titular role at the performance I attended, and his genuine sense of boyish vulnerability coupled with his tremendous dancing ability was a sight to behold. Minard's Act Two Swan Lake pas de deux with Billy's older self (performed by Maximilien A. Baud) was both beautifully touching and breathtaking, to which he follows up with a knock-out rendition of "Electricity", a paean to Billy's passion for dance. It was undeniable that we were in the presence of true stage talent (and at such a young age, too!). 

The main quibbles I have with this production include John's score; while on the whole it works in the context of the show, the songs themselves aren't all that memorable.

Cast standouts include Janet Dickinson as Billy's dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson, who packs a punch with her terse lines and great comedic timing, and Rich Hebert as Dad, who delivers a truly heartbreaking rendition of "Deep Into The Ground" in Act Two. Patti Perkins is crudely adorable as Grandma, and Billy's best friend Michael, performed by Jake Kitchin at this performance, was a definite scene stealer, especially during "Expressing Yourself", a tap dance-infused ode to cross dressing.

But the real standout here is the phenomenal choreography by Peter Darling. Although the big showier numbers such as "Shine" and the aforementioned "Expressing Yourself" naturally lend itself to choreography, moments that highlight his outstanding work include "We'd Go Dancing", which features a dream-like sequence that is languidly beautiful and hauntingly mesmerizing. Add to that the way Darling juxtaposes the rising tension between the police and striking coalminers in cleverly cute counterpoint with a children's ballet lesson during "Solidarity Forever", then later clashes that tension with Billy's inner turmoil during the thrilling Act One closer, "Angry Dance", is a mark of sheer choreographic genius. This show is a true testament to dance, and Darling spares no expense in delivering a dance-laden spectacle. 

The main quibbles I have with this production include John's score; while on the whole it works in the context of the show, the songs themselves aren't all that memorable. Also I felt that the alterations made to Ian MacNeil's set design to accommodate the demands of touring made the staging feel cramped (and almost claustrophobic) at times; only when all the major set pieces were stowed away into the wings did I feel that the show was given the necessary room to breathe. Plus this show is unabashedly British, which could make it quite confusing for a North American audience to comprehend (I know I definitely struggled at times to understand the dialogue with the actors speaking in thick Northern English accents).

Minor blemishes aside, Billy Elliot The Musical successfully delivers an inspiring and crowd-pleasing show full of heart. The show features a solid cast with a dazzling display of dancing and acting talent. It's a shame that the Vancouver run is less than a week long; I highly recommend seeing this show before it sashays away from the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. 

To April 7

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