Sunday, April 15, 2012

Billy Elliot Will Steal Your Heart, and so will Michael

The cast of Billy Elliot. Photo by Kyle Froman

Billy Elliot the Musical opens in County Durham on the eve of the 1984 British Miners’ Strike, an event that was to become a defining moment in the country’s history. Prompted by the government’s plan to close twenty coal mines which would effectively end thousands of workers’ only means of employment, the miners rallied together to protect their livelihood. Life was tough and tempers ran high during the year-long strike and out of this conflicted period, Billy Elliot was born.

It is a musical filled with anger, defiance, longing, and hope, in which a boy discovers a passion for dance he cannot deny, a blue collar father faces his shortcomings to help a son achieve a dream, and a community bands together in solidarity to fight against a government that would break its spirit. It is a musical for the people; working class people, who live and die by the sweat of their brow, eking out a living far from the manicured life of the gentry. And something about that makes it all the more rewarding when we see one of their own emerge with a shot at a better life.

The national touring production of Billy Elliot has finally arrived in Los Angeles for the first time where it will sit down for a month at the beautiful Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. If only it would stay longer. Elton John’s music and Lee Hall’s book & lyrics achieve a method of storytelling under Stephen Daldry’s direction that is so powerful that, while you may not go home humming the songs, you’ll certainly leave talking about the images and emotions they conjure on stage. From the sobering opening number “The Stars Look Down” to the heartfelt surprise of “Electricity,” it is a journey that resonates deeply. Peter Darling’s visceral choreography is highly inventive as it weaves together the miners, ballet students, and riot police within numbers like “Solidarity” serving up a triple dose of dramatic irony. The effect is sublime.

Four boys alternate in the role of Billy, with Ty Forhan appearing at the performance I attended. That the producers can even find this level of talent at so young an age is amazing in itself for Billy must be a consummate triple threat. Forhan is already a star who carries himself with the poise of a much older actor and I am sure the other boys, whom I did not see, are equally as gifted.

The journey from being a boy who has never attempted a dance step in his life to a full-fledged ballet protégé means training of the first order and this young man’s performance alone will leave you in awe. The sweet-faced innocent begins awkwardly, all elbows and wide eyes in his first ballet class, but transforms into an exploding time bomb by the time we get to the famous end of Act I “Angry Dance.” And later, his chair-spinning “Swan Lake” becomes a breathtaking pas de deux dream sequence with his older self in which Billy literally takes flight. The sheer beauty of that moment, awash in a single spotlight with billowing clouds of fog rising from the floor, can't help but tug at your heart.

Ty Forhan, Leah Hocking, and Annelise Ritacca

A terrific
Leah Hocking, from the original Broadway cast, plays Billy’s chain-smoking dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson with a forthright manner that allows him to dare to reach for his dream. She is a crucial presence for Billy, whose own mother has died, and though she isn’t cut from the same maternal cloth as his mum, she recognizes that he has a gift that deserves to be given a chance. I was also quite taken by Rich Herbert’s heartbreaking portrayal of Billy’s Dad, a well-intentioned man who tries to do the best he can but is a victim of his own limitations.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t sing the praises of Cameron Clifford’s audacious performance as Billy’s best friend and confidante, Michael (doubled with Jacob Zelonky on other nights). He is another charismatic star in the making who will steal your heart with his honesty and impeccable comedic timing.

I found so much to love in this production. Billy Elliot is the triumphant expression of one boy’s pursuit of a dream that doesn’t gloss over the grittiness of living. Its bold themes, realistic intensity, and electrifying dance numbers will turn you into a Billy fan by the time you leave the theater. They did me.

Billy Elliott the Musical will play the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood through May 13. For tickets and more information go to

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