BWW Reviews: Billy Dances, But BILLY ELLIOT Stumbles
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by Jeff Davis
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.
Elton John's score is just as dull. This is easily John's least memorable Broadway score, and yes, I'm counting the epic mega-flop Lestat. There is not a single, hummable, memorable tune, shocking considering John's stellar track record and career. His score starts with "The Stars Look Down," a tune he clearly intended to be Billy Elliot's version of "Do You Hear the People Sing." The song simply doesn't work, and the dead on arrival tunes continue from there. Adding to the problems are Martin Koch's thin orchestrations which feature many pre-recorded moments and Paul Arditti's loud, obnoxious, and bombastic sound design which relies on an overuse of echo mics.
The design team has its share of issues as well. While Nicky Gillibrand's costumes are neither here nor there, Ian MacNeil's set is atrocious. It is easily the most hideous, over-designed, and unnecessarily complex set I've ever seen in a Broadway show or tour. It's often confusing as to where we are, an issue usually addressed in Scenic Design 101.
Thankfully, there are two bright spots in the creative team, the first being Rick Fisher's lighting design. His lighting is perfect, beautiful, and eye catching, especially during the dance numbers. But it is Peter Darling's choreography that really is the centerpiece of the show, and it is splendid and challenging. The awards and praise he's received for this show are well deserved. This show really comes alive through the dance numbers, and every one of them is good in their own way, particularly Billy's solos, the act one finale, and the curtain call. However, there's quite a lot of full company numbers, and the more that everyone else dances, the less special Billy is for his interest in ballet. If the whole point of the show is to see someone courageously go against the grain by studying ballet, shouldn't the grain refrain from dancing? I'm also a bit confused by the excessive amount of tap dancing. We see Mrs. Wilkinson teach Billy ballet, but she never even mentions tap. If he taught that medium to himself, he sure is a prodigy!
Still, while the creative team is brimming with talented individuals, most of their contributions fall short, and the talented cast can't save the show, try as the might. Judging by the heaps of praise from other critics, the standing ovation, and the 10 Tony Awards, I'm clearly in the minority with my opinion of Billy Elliot. However, I still stand behind my opinion that this entire cast, and the audience as well, deserves a far better show than this.
RUN TIME: 2 hours and 55 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
Due to adult language, this show is not recommended for young children. Please note that several roles, including the role of Billy Elliot, are double cast.
Billy Elliot plays The Bass Concert Hall at 2350 Robert Dedman Drive, Austin TX 78712 now thru Sunday, December 16th. Performances are Wednesday 12/12 thru Saturday 12/15 at 8pm, Saturday 12/15 at 2pm, and Sunday 12/16 at 1pm.
Tickets are $30-$80.