Review: Billy Elliot: The Musical at Queen Elizabeth Theatre
Broadway Across Canada returned to Vancouver yesterday evening, arriving with musical theatre of a scale rarely witnessed in the city. The current production is Billy Elliot, a plucky, playful adaptation of the celebrated film that has previously enjoyed immense success (included a combined 14 Tony's and Olivier Awards) on New York and London stages.
The narrative is faithful to the film, following motherless, eleven-year old Billy Elliot who finds passion and calling when he stumbles upon a ballet class after boxing lessons. The setting is 1984 County Durham, where striking coal miners are economically wracked by Thatcher's politics and clash in streets with police. Coming from a blue-collar family, Billy's initial struggle is to keep dancing a secret from borderline-bigot relations; having later gained their acceptance, he must then find financial means to audition for the Royal Ballet School.
The greatest difference between film and musical comes in how they address their themes. The story is about a young boy, full of secrets, who finds a single outlet to express himself amidst an emotionally-inaccessible close-minded community. In the film, this results in themes of repression, restraint, and words unspoken. In the musical it is hard to achieve the same depth, as characters regularly burst into articulate, expressive song.
The lyrics and script are penned by Lee Hall, who also wrote the original screenplay, with music by none other than Elton John. The score hovers somewhere between John's popular canon and a traditional musical, filled with rock ballads, jazzy blues, synthesizer-heavy dance numbers, and a particularly nice folk song in Act Two.
The words and songs are carried by a rock solid cast, with standout turns from Janet Dickinson as Billy's hard-nosed dance teacher and Rich Hebert as his father, who captures a special vulnerability in his whole-hearted commitment to a child with unlikely dreams.
In any story where a character's name is the title, one's overall impression is likely to come down this titular performer. In this regard, Billy Elliot impresses.
There are no fewer than three young actors who alternate the role of Billy; on opening night, it was Drew Minard. It's an immensely demanding role, requiring great skill as an actor, singer, and dancer (both ballet and tap). Furthermore, speech and song must be in a Northern English accent. When one factors in that the actor must also be willing to spend months on the road, it seems mathematically improbable to find three actors even capable of the role.
Minard goes far beyond capable however, and genuinely amazes. Particular impressive is the slow reveal of his dance talent over the course of Billy's artistic development (charted out by choreographer Peter Darling). With each display of gained skill you think that Minard has reached the limits of his abilities, but his dazzling full potential is not unleashed until the musical's climatic moments.
A final thought on Billy Elliot- in many ways the show reminded me of Blood Brothers, another musical whose story and message stem from Thatcher's class dissent. We are fortunate to live in a country where class, income, and upbringing are not revealed and judged by the accent coming out of our mouths, but one can not help but feel that there are levels of story present that Canadian audiences can not truly access.
Regardless, there is so much in this musical- from raw young talent, to flashy entertainment, to heartfelt story- that folk from Tofino to Truro will surely find something to bring them laughter, awe, and insight.