Thursday, April 08, 2010

Billy Elliot Dances in Delights

Theater Review

Billy Elliot: the Musical
Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theatre
Chicago
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Before I get all long-winded, let me make this simple: Billy Elliot is fantastic. If you see only one musical in Chicago this year--or New York or London for that matter--it should be this one. It's that good.

Even if I don't quite agree with Time magazine calling it "the best musical of the decade" or the New York Post saying "this is the best show you'll ever see," I do concur that it is a supremely entertaining, enriching and uplifting piece of musical theater.

Based on the wonderful 2000 British film of the same name, but with a new score by Elton John rather than live renditions of soundtrack nuggets by T-Rex, The Jam and The Clash, the stage version of Billy Elliot is directed by the movie's director, Stephen Daldry, and written by the screenwriter, Lee Hall, who also penned excellent lyrics to accompany John's music, despite having never before written show lyrics. It tells the story of a boy who wants to be a ballet dancer, set against a working-class town struggling through a miner's strike in Maggie Thatcher's mid-'80s England.

It works well on all counts, with the best of many superb production numbers merging Billy, the girls who comprise the rest of his dance class, the striking miners and the police in a high energy song--Solidarity--that brilliantly furthers the interwoven plot lines. I had seen and loved the show in London, but despite supposed concerns that it was "too British" for stateside success, it has thrived on Broadway and though still officially in previews through Sunday, it seems to already be in top form in Chicago, where it will run for at least 8 months if not for years.

Back in December I cited Billy Elliot as the 7th best musical of the '00s, and still feel that's about right, but only by virtue of how much I love the ones above it. Seeing it for the second time on Tuesday night--and if it was significantly revised from or any worse than the London version, I couldn't tell--I was struck by how many of the best musicals from the past decade, and well beyond, are about self-empowerment, individuality and turning the tables on convention (Wicked, Hairspray, Spring Awakening, Avenue Q, etc., etc.). No wonder I enjoy Broadway so much despite my rock 'n roll roots; not only is rock prevalent in many musical scores these days, but theater has become far more the domain of anti-establishment rebellion. Heck, even Green Day has gone Broadway.

I would be remiss if I didn't also mention the sparkling performance by J.P. Viernes, the boy who played Billy on Tuesday. One of four who rotate in the Chicago company, J.P. (third from left in the photo) was seemingly added to the roster since last year's auditions that brought the other three Billys featured in this story. But he gets press at the bottom of this piece and certainly deserves it.

I realize it's a big world with many talented people of all ages, and the Billy Elliot producers are to be applauded for realizing that the ethnicity of the actors need not match that of the character, but to find kids who can ballet dance, sing wonderfully, act and adopt a passable English accent can't be all that easy.

All the performances in the cast here are good, and the scenery is impressive, but it's Billy--and I imagine all four are great--that really brings the crowd to its feet. So grab your shoes and head to the door. You've got some time, but this is a show that shouldn't be missed.

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As a Broadway in Chicago subscriber with most afternoons currently free, Friday I will attend a taping of a local cable show about Billy Elliot. Director Daldry and some of the cast will be there--though probably not Elton--and I think it should be pretty cool. 

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Below is a video of some Billy Elliot clips from last year's Tony Awards; not the same actors as Chicago and kind of a hodge-podge of musical numbers, but it should give you the general idea.

3 comments:

G1000 said...

It looks fantastic. However, there's another musical playing at the Drury Lane Oakbrook that may not be topped by anything for a very long time. I'm surprised you haven't reviewed it (unless I missed it in the archives). Suffice to say, "Ragtime" was flat out amazing. If you have not yet had the chance to see it, by all means go. The tickets much cheaper than "Billy", and it's a world-class production. Just saying...

Seth Arkin said...

G1000, thanks for reading and for your comment. I had already noted the outstanding reviews Ragtime is getting at DRO and will be seeing it on Friday night. So look for my review over the weekend.

While I agree that great theater can be seen throughout Chicagoland, often for considerably less cash than at the downtown theaters, in this case, the $15 I paid for Billy Elliot (as a Broadway in Chicago subscriber) is about half of what I'm paying to see Ragtime ($29.50), and that's with a 1/2 price ticket through Goldstar.com.

I took note of your blog/profile and if it's ever convenient, might suggest attending the Movie Discussion Meetup group that I enjoy (http://movies.meetup.com/616/)

G1000 said...

Interesting link. Unfortunately, I'm not all that close to Chicago (where most of these are held). Close enough to see a few plays, but not that close.

Looking forward to your review of "Ragtime". And I am looking forward to "Billy Elliot". I'm not going till mid-June, though. Fortunately, Chicago has more than enough good theatre to tide me over.