Broadway Review: March, 2009
In today’s multi-media world it’s hard to keep track of which came first: the chicken or the movie? It used to be that successful musical theater was adapted for the big screen. Of course it’s risky business trying to take the intimacy and abstraction of the theater and translate it to the less personal but bigger and more reality-based cinema. Some productions made the leap successfully by not copying but capturing the essence of the play. In fact some projects have gone from stage to film and back – think West Side Story or Guys and Dolls for example.
In keeping with a new paradigm pioneered by Disney, Billy Elliot at the Imperial Theater goes in the other direction, attempting to create musical theater from the movie of the same name. If you have yet to see Billy Elliot, The Movie (go on line and add it to your NetFlix list right now) it is the story of a young boy in a working class town in northern England during the infamous coal miners’ strike of 1984 – 1985. The principal theme however is Billy’s determination, drive and deep seated need to express himself through the world of classical ballet in spite of the overwhelming odds growing up in a socially conservative household.
While there is no magic formula for successful musical theater, surely there are several critical ingredients, the most obvious being the score. In this case, the producers commissioned Elton John, the talented pop singer/songwriter and composer. With the possible exception of the opening number that sets the stage for the battle between miners and Margaret Thatcher’s conservative, union busting administration, unlike his work in The Lion King, the music is bland and forgettable.
Creating a Broadway show about an aspiring dancer is kind of like casting Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn – on one hand it’s a no-brainer but in another sense the expectation bar is automatically raised a notch or two. Happily, Peter Darling’s choreography and its execution are both exciting and memorable. Because the part of young (pre-teen) Billy who is on stage for almost the entire show is so demanding especially for a child actor, there are three (four including the understudy) actors who rotate the part. We saw David Alvarez, who like his character was surely born to dance. Early in the show Billy visits a girl’s dance studio and struggles to follow the steps – this was probably the most challenging part of the role for the talented Alvarez. Later, the young Billy dances with his future self (Stephen Hanna) in a brilliantly conceived dance that soars. The tension between the miners and Thatcher’s goons was creatively captured in several numbers for the adult company. Kudos to casting director Nora Brennan for selecting a group of talented but not typically cutesy young girls for the dance school pieces.
Act Two opens with a scene in which the miners and their families are trying desperately to bring some normalcy to their lives in the midst of the bitter and debilitating strike by holding a community Christmas celebration. What starts innocently as a children’s puppet show erupts into an hysterical parody on Thatcher’s regime through larger than life puppeteering reminiscent of Julie Taymore’s work in The Lion King and Across the Universe.
The creative and complex set design (Ian McNeill) seamlessly changes the scenes before our eyes by raising, lowering, sliding, gliding, rotating, mixing and matching basic set components. Certainly impressive to watch, the Disneyesque approach competes with rather than complements the actors. The cast, especially Leah Hocking (subbing for Haydn Gwynne) as Billy’s first dance teacher and Gregory Jbara, playing his dad worked hard to provide some depth. Child actor Frank Dolce was the best of the lot playing Billy’s cross-dressing best friend Michael.
While direct comparison with the screenplay is perhaps unfair, it is inevitable. With all the things that worked well in the stage version of Billy Elliot, the weak score and overly glitzy staging could perhaps be forgiven. But something much more critical to the core was conspicuously missing from this Billy Elliot: the compelling emotional connections that were so brilliantly woven into the movie. On screen, it was hard not to be moved watching the coal miners year long struggle and ultimately failed strike, its impact on his father, brother and Billy himself, Billy’s relationship with his one true friend, and the way that Billy overcame abuse and ridicule to find peace in search of what he understood early on was his calling. Unfortunately on stage these emotions were portrayed but never truly captured.