BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL (National Tour)
Book and Lyrics by Lee Ball. Music by Elton John
AT&T Performing Arts Center
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Choreography by Peter Darling
Scenic Design by Ian MacNell
Costume Design by Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting Design by Rick Fisher
Sound Design by Paul Arditti
Reviewed Performance 6/9/2011
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Critic/Editor/Founder for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Two genres have saturated the Broadway musical landscape for the last 10-15 years. One is the jukebox musical. The other is where composers and book writers take hit motion pictures or TV shows and transform them into musicals.
The latter is much harder for composers to achieve success as they have to create music out of thin air. At least with the jukebox genre the music is already done for them. When it comes to creating a musical from a movie or TV show, many have failed. Only a handful reaches that artistic bar, creating a satisfying, entertaining, and emotional piece of work. That they are able to build a score and book around a film that finds artistic and financial success is a very rare feat.
Even with so many flops producers keep trying. They even try throwing in big name stars to help elevate the material and box office receipts. Even the great talents of Nathan Lane could not save THE ADDAMS FAMILY the musical from the blood thirsty New York Theater critics.
It is well noted that when Sir Elton John saw the 2000 film version of BILLY ELLIOT it struck an emotional cord within him. He saw immediately that this could be a stage musical. John had already found stage success with AIDA, winning a Tony award for Best score and the show eventually became a box office hit. But he also had a flop with the much troubled LESTAT which closed a mere few weeks after it opened on Broadway.
This time Sir John knew what he needed to make the show work. He brought in the film's original screenwriter Lee Ball to fashion the book from his screenplay. Then John added into the mix the film's original director Stephen Daldry to helm the stage version.
The stage musical premiered at the West End in 2005 where it immediately became a critical and financial success winning every award in its path. But would it be a hit on Broadway? Pundits felt that the harsh, devastating United Kingdom Miner's strike in 1985 would not impact an American audience like it did for the Brits.
After several attempts the show crossed the waters and the Broadway production finally premiered in 2008. Just like its London counterpart this production was also met with a bounty of critical raves and armfuls of awards. It would receive 15 Tony nominations (only THE PRODUCERS achieved that status of total nods). BILLY would dance away with the award for Best Musical. Also that night the three boys who played Billy were awarded Best Actor in a Musical.
BILLY ELLIOT the film and the musical practically mirrors each other. Set in 1984, Britain's strong miners union is at war with the British government being head by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. After much fighting, protesting, and even deaths, the union admits defeat giving Thatcher and her party a great victory. During this strike thousands of miners are out of work, having to depend on the help of others to survive. It is a harsh defeat for the working class. This creates a social rip between British society, Northern England and Wales.
Within all this turmoil is a tiny boy named Billy who lives with his father and older brother (both miners who support the union), and a grandmother who seems to keep losing her memory. Sadly, Billy's mother has passed away a few years before. It is a lonely, empty daily life for the young tyke. His father makes him take boxing lessons, and that is where he meets a ballet teacher that changes his life. It is not an easy road whatsoever for Billy. An emotional uphill journey of hiding his dancing from his family, the loss of his mother, his best friend developing a crush on him, a girl who likes him, an audition for the Royal Ballet, and a tough, b*lls of steel ballet teacher are all land mines that implode on him while on his journey.
Lee Hall's book superbly brings to the stage all the strengths that make the film such an emotional piece of celluloid. Each major character conflict and arc is crafted beautifully within Hall's book. One of my favorite scenes in the film is between Billy, his father, and brother at the bus station. How would that play on stage? That film scene had me wiping tears off my face. Hall has magically written a different scene for that moment that will leave a lump in your throat. It is one of the finest books written for a musical to come down the path in quite some time. Hall's lyrics are rich, detailed, and provide radiant, powerful character development and subtext throughout the piece.
Stephen Daldry's direction for the stage version is as magnificent as his film counterpart. He knows how to lavish the audience, bringing on waves of laughter and giving the crowd some big and bold, razzle dazzle Broadway numbers. Then he knows when to reign it all in to allow the dramatic elements and graphic harsh reality kick you hard in the gut. That is a very difficult achievement for directors; to balance comedy and drama with equal success. Daldry does indeed achieve this from the first scene to the final moment. There are so many magical, unique and touching elements in his direction that are rich in fulfilling subtext and emotion. But it would be cruel to reveal them to you. An audience member needs to experience them for the first time like I did.
Ian MacNeil's scenic design is flawless, from the dingy, crusty, molded combination central piece that serves as the union meeting hall/dance studio/boxing gym to some glorious glitz and glitter in one particular musical number. MacNeil takes full advantage of the technology available for today's designers. Set pieces glide/float in and out with hushed silence. The walls open up on their own to reveal other scenery. Assisting MacNeal in creating a realistic world as well as a magical one is Rick Fisher's bold lighting. Fisher blankets some of the most dramatic, intense moments with fantastic lighting, giving the emotion of the scene even more strength with numbers such as "Angry Dance", "Solidarity", "Once We Were Kings", "Dear Billy (Mum's Letter)", and "Electricity". But wait till you see what he does with the musical number "Expressing Yourself". The lighting and scenic design for this number is a feast for the eyes!
Sir John's music is phenomenal. It's what you come to expect from one of the true living legends of Rock left on this earth. John's score is firmly rooted and pays great homage to the hymns and music of Wales and Northern England. Every song fits like a glove into the book, lyrics and direction of the piece. They provide marvelous character subtext and solidify their arc. Thanks to John the music elevates the material to that ethereal world which makes a musical so special and emotionally gripping. There is not one song you can call "filler" music.
Many of the numbers swelling in my heart are already mentioned in the previous paragraph but the song "Dear Billy" is one that just moved me to tears. Sung by Billy, Mrs. Wilkerson (the ballet teacher) and Billy's dead mother had me constantly swabbing away tears that kept pouring out of my eyes. I could tell I wasn't the only one so moved by this song by the sounds of sniffles and hands that wiped tears away all around me in the darkness. This number is a perfect example of why I love and respect the art of theater so much. A simple yet celestially melodic song moving your soul and heart to tears, that is the magic of this art form.
There is phenomenal, breath taking, jaw dropping choreography by Peter Darling who also choreographed for the film version. The dancing in this musical lifts the audience's hearts through the roof and into the heavens. Darling creates some outlandish, hysterical dance sequences where the comedy is needed. When we need to see and feel the anger, dark pathos, fury, sadness, and, above all, joy and exhilaration from within Billy, Darling achieves that exceptional feat so very few choreographers succeed in. Darling shows us exactly what the character feels through dance, with stunning results. What he does with the numbers "Angry Dance" and "Electricity" are proof of that oh so rare achievement. Even the ensemble numbers are outstanding in their choreography. Darling has created some of the finest, engrossing choreography that has EVER been achieved for the Broadway stage.
The entire cast is sublime. The ensemble and the ballet girls are always, and I mean always, in the moment. Be it comedy or dramatic intensity, they are focused and believable. They are the muscular backbone of this production giving the piece the emotional core it needs. Their faces and actions transcend from "chorus" into leading characters all their own.
Within the principals there is a cornucopia of resplendent performances. Griffin Birney portrays Michael, Billy's best friend. Michael has a fondness for dressing up in his mum's dresses. Birney (wearing some big, thick, black glasses) is a firecracker of a performer who zings each comedic moment with hilarious results. This kid has some amazing comedic timing! His big musical number, "Expressing Yourself", is one of the best show-stopping numbers of the entire evening.
Rich Herbert as Dad and Jeff Kready as Tony both give extraordinary performances in this production. Both actors speak with thick accents that thankfully are easy to understand. The inner battles these men have between each other, their loyalty to the miner's union and towards Billy is graphic and brutally realistic. You honestly feel and believe their anger and fury so much that you want to run on stage and protect Billy, that's how strong their acting is. Herbert and Kready are astounding in BILLY ELLIOT.
Patti Perkins gives a wickedly funny performance as Grandma. Book writer Hall smartly takes the film version of this role and gives her more substance for the stage. We get to see more of who she is. Perkins has a very moving number, "We'd Go Dancing", about her dead husband that provides the audience rich, detailed character development that is not in the film. Perkins not only provides some well deserved hearty laughs but also a big tug at your heart with her performance.
Maximilien A. Baud portrays Older Billy in a phenomenal dance piece in which we see both tiny Billy dance with his older self. This is a magical, powerful moment in the musical for it shows Billy what he can become. Hall again works his magic here, book wise. In the film we see adult Billy dance in Swan Lake. For the stage we see both boy and adult dance. Baud's dancing is transcending and utterly beautiful. He is masculine and shows great strength and command of the ballet choreography.
Faith Prince is one of the biggest and best in the celestial world of Broadway stars. She made Broadway history by performing one of the freshest, finest, and brilliant portrayals of "Adelaide" in GUYS & DOLLS. I was very lucky to catch her performance in the final weeks of her run of that show. She also was able to display her dramatic chops in the musical A CATERED AFFAIR. She has a unique talent that can go between the worlds of drama and comedy and come out with equal artistic success in both arenas. In the role of Mrs. Wilkerson we have the immense pleasure to see her do both in one role. As the chain smoking ballet teacher who barks insults and dance steps to her students, Ms. Prince is a comedic tornado. From her sluggish, almost drunken saunter across the stage all the way to her piled up hairdo that looks like a crumbling floral display of chrysanthemums she embodies this character like a second skin. Her facial expressions alone have the audience howling in laughter. Comic timing, pace and delivery make Prince a full force star. She knows exactly where to smack the comedy right on it's behind and give it that punch, resulting in waves of laughter from the audience. Her first solo number "Shine" is a perfect example of the comedic brilliance of this woman. When it came time for her to swim within the dramatic and conflicted waters of her character, she again succeeded peerlessly. Her chemistry with Billy is riveting and the dramatic anchor for not only the piece but for their characters. She learns to become a second mother to him. Prince carefully balances this stern, fierce, cold woman between seeing that the boy has a gift, and refusing to baby him. Instinctively she makes him stronger and have belief in himself. The final scene between her and Billy again had the audience reaching for tissue. Ms. Prince's performance is spectacular from beginning to end.
According to the playbill there are five boys who each take turns playing Billy on this national tour. But opening night they brought in a sixth boy to fill the role, Giuseppe Bausilio. This 13 year old hails from the Chicago cast as well as part of an earlier national tour of BILLY ELLIOT. Bausilio will soon head up to New York to perform on Broadway. How fortunate for the Dallas and Fort Worth audiences to catch his magnificent performance before he heads for Broadway. Bausilio handles the thick North England accent convincingly, matching his adult co-stars. His acting craft and choices are devoid of bad teen camp/cheesy child acting that unfortunately too many tiny kids are taught nowadays. Bausilio wisely focuses organically and lets the subtext bleed through his performance with vivid, heartbreaking realism. It never comes off false or "taught" and one can feel this boy's every emotion from sadness to anger to joy to pain. That's how damn good this boy is! His singing is quite good and he does have the beginnings of a good vibrato. But there are a couple of times where the high tenor notes are dangerously close to his breaking bridge within his vocal range. There are also a few moments where he fails to sustain the notes. But those are so minor in comparison to his entire performance. Then there's the dancing! We're not talking a triple threat here-this boy is a quadruple threat! Not only can he do ballet, he can do jazz, hip hop, and some sizzling tapping. His dancing leaves you with your jaw in your lap. It is inconceivable how powerful and amazing his dancing is.
His two major dance solos, "Angry Dance" and "Electricity", are the show stoppers of the entire musical. Bausilio's dancing is transcendent, graceful, hypnotic, magical, and pulchritudinous. I've never seen a young boy do that kind of dancing on a stage ever. Bausilio is a star in the making with his performance as Billy.
BILLY ELLIOT is one of those rare shows that not only stands up to the hype, it surpasses it. At intermission both men and women with red eyes were attempting to wipe away tears so no one would notice they had been crying.
BILLY ELLIOT is a musical that you just cannot miss. This touring production will lift your heart high into the sky with laughter and tears. It is overflowing with a superlative cast who has a remarkable and unparalleled book, music, lyrics, direction, choreography, and design elements to wrap their talents around, resulting in one of the most emotional and uplifting musicals that has ever been created for the stage.
BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL (National Tour)
AT&T Performing Arts Center
Lexus Broadway Series
Through June 19, 2011
Performances are 8:00 pm Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:00 pm & 8:00 pm on Saturdays & 2:00 pm on Sundays, with an additional performance Wednesday, June 15 at 2:00 pm.
Single ticket prices range from $30 to $150 with prime location orchestra seats available at $90 for select performances.
Tickets can be purchased by phone at 214.880.0202, at the AT&T Performing Arts Center