When a show is as acclaimed as Billy Elliot: The Musical, the worldwide megahit that won 10 Tony Awards, audience expectations are high to say the least. Mine were. And no matter how high my expectations can get, many a show surpasses them with ease. Billy Elliot isn't one of those shows. Despite the incredibly talented cast of the national tour, now playing Austin's Bass Concert Hall, Billy Elliot is wobbly on its feet due to the numerous missteps of its creative team.
Based on the brilliant film of the same name, Billy Elliot follows the titular young Brit as he discovers his love of ballet in the midst of a coal miner's strike that shakes his family and community to the core. While there are many problems with the show, the cast certainly isn't one of them. The winning ensemble is incredibly hard-working, particularly the brilliant ballet girls. The young dancers are all brilliant actresses as well, and all have developed well-defined characters. It's rare to see actors and dancers of this caliber at any age. The fact that the ballet girls all are children and pre-teens makes their accomplishments downright remarkable.
Many of the leads are astounding as well. Rich Herbert is fabulous as Billy's dad, Jackie. He's gruff and inflexible in the first act but becomes heartwarming and charming in the second act. As Billy's chain-smoking, legwarmer-wearing mentor and dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, Janet Dickenson is superbly stoic, stubborn, and strong. Patti Perkins gives a hilarious turn as Billy's grandma. Her solo song is wonderfully sung and acted, but sadly she's absent from the stage through most of the show. And as Billy's cross-dressing best friend Michael, Cameron Clifford is hysterically funny. He's a crowd-pleasing ham, and I would not be surprised if Clifford finds a long career as a character actor.
But of course, the star of the show is Ben Cook as Billy, and there's no doubt about it: Ben Cook is a star. He leads the cast and show with ease. Cook's acting and singing is splendid. He understands the nuances and flaws that make Billy human and turn him into an underdog we root for and identify with. He'd be a great performer even if his gifts ended at the double-threat status, but thankfully that's only the beginning of what Cook brings to the table. He's absolutely astonishing as a dancer. His form and technique are nearly perfect, and his tight pirouettes are jaw-dropping.
I wish my review could end here with my heaps of praise to this brilliant cast, but sadly something has to be said about the creative team. Despite the names involved in the team (Oscar nominated director Stephen Daldry and a certain songwriter by the name of Elton John), very few of them turn in the stellar work they should all be capable of.
Stephen Daldry, who directed the understated and blissfully simplistic film version of Billy Elliot as well, seems out of his element with musical theater. While the movie was simple and focused, this monster is not. Daldry's direction is muddy and over-complicated. Some moments and numbers are downright awful. The staging of the Act One number "Solidarity," a montage of Billy's ballet training and the escalating violence surrounding the strike, is especially confusing and headache inducing.
Lee Hall, who was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay of the film version, contributes a stale book and uninspired lyrics to the show. At nearly three hours long, his script is overly long. Why on earth does it take so long to reach the ending? When the logo features Billy triumphantly dancing and we see him dance with his adult self early in the second act, my bet is that the kid will become a dancer. Problems also arise from Hall's undue added focus to the sub-plot regarding the coal miner's strike. While the strike stays in the background in the film, it's a major focal point here. I'd even suggest that the stage version could even be re-named Coal Miner's Son. Hall's lyrics aren't any better. There's not a clever, witty lyric in the bunch. At the climax of the evening, Billy sings the insanely clichéd and uninspired, "Suddenly I'm flying, flying like a bird/Like electricity, electricity/Sparks inside of me/And I'm free I'm free." While Billy May be flying, the lyrics are on auto-pilot.