If you've watched any TV at all lately you've seen the ads: Billy Elliot The Musical! Based on that British ballet movie! With music by Elton John! It won all the Tonys! It has dancing kids, and miners, and nigh-unintelligible working-class accents!
Well, that's all true, sure. Billy Elliot is an impressive spectacle, at times quite moving, full of ecstatic displays of dance talent by its very young performers (the four actors sharing the role of Billy are all about 15). It's also a confused mess of a production, overloaded with eye candy and marred by baffling ignorance of tone.
The script, by Lee Hall, hews closely to his script for the 2000 film: Billy, a kid from a northeastern English coal town whose mum is dead and da is busy running the 1984 miners' strike, stumbles into a ballet class and discovers his true calling, which he sticks with despite the disapproval of all the manly men around him. It's a socially conscious schmaltzfest in the great British tradition, and that's fine—no one expects the story of a boy who yearns to dance to be a downer all the time—but Hall's stage script swings wildly between moving, abstract scenes and broad comedy that could have easily been drawn from the outtakes of The Producers.
An example: Billy's grandma (Patti Perkins) sings "We'd Go Dancing," a nice number about what a bastard her husband was and how sometimes she loved him anyway, while the men of the company, in vests and shirt sleeves, perform a lovely abstract dance with beer steins and wooden chairs. Full of slow feats of strength and exaggeratedly masculine gestures, it's a really beautiful moment. But then, a few minutes later, Billy happens upon his friend Michael (Griffin Birney, Jacob Zelonky) trying on his sister's clothing. After ten minutes of gay jokes, tinsel curtains drop, the lights come up and we're subjected to a dance number with enormous tap-dancing dresses.
These weird juxtapositions of beauty and camp occur over and over through the show's three hours. It is as though Hall could not conceive of a musical that was not also a musical comedy. I walked away with the impression that the show had been written by two ideologically opposed playwrights and edited together by a third. One moment we're watching lyrical violence as the striking miners singing "solidarity forever" clash with cops; the next, we get a long and loud tribute to Fame. Billy's songs addressed to his deceased mother would be heartbreaking, except that Lee has dragged her reanimated corpse on stage. Billy performs a lovely pas de deux with his adult self, and then for some reason starts flying. Gimmicks run rampant: Transformer-esque set pieces! Snow! A 20-foot puppet caricature of Margaret Thatcher!
The most egregious directorial error comes late in the show, when Billy and his father learn on the same day that he has been accepted into an elite ballet academy and that the year-long strike has been broken. The stage goes dark, lit only by the lamps on the miners' helmets, as they sing "Once We Were Kings." It's an anthem for the oppressed as powerful as anything by Dick Gaughan. (I can't find a clip, so here's some Gaughan.)
The miners gather in the shaft elevator and a flat descends, sending the men into the earth, and their voices fade away. It's a brilliantly staged scene, a perfect ending for a play about one boy escaping from economic ruin while his family must stay behind. But this is not where the play ends—no, instead we have to bring the dead mom back for another go, and the show continues for a further 15 minutes.
What were they thinking? All the strongest moments in Billy Elliot happen with dancers on a more or less bare stage, and I think the musical could have been truly great if all the other stuff were swept away. I'd love to see a local company try for a minimalist production when the rights become available in 20 years or so. Until then, you'll have to decide for yourself whether the moments of beauty are worth sitting through the crap in between, or whether they completely undermine (so to speak) the show's artistic merits.
One great achievement I will grant Billy Elliot: It is astonishing, given the current anti-labor climate, that a show with the repeated refrain of "solidarity, solidarity, solidarity forever" should be selling out three concurrent productions in the US. If this musical makes even just a few Scott Walker-esque stooges of the moneyed class realize that unions and workers maybe deserve a little respect, I will retract everything I have said against it.
Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St., 241-1802, portlandopera.org. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 7:30 pm Saturday, 1 and 6:30 pm Sunday, April 13-17. $29.50-$90.