Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Billy Elliot

Seeing this little musical extravaganza (and that’s not, in this case, a contradiction in terms) was like seeing an evening’s worth of product placement, a musical based on a film determined to squeeze every penny from the success of its prior incarnation. That sounds cynical in a way I don’t mean; Billy Elliot works to the extent that it captures the surprising warmth of the terrific original film. But to change media requires placing the sad, whimsical, and finally hopeful story of the boy from a Northern England mining family who can’t suppress his sudden desire to be a ballet dancer into the relatively lumbering, static realm of the stage. The story feels a bit plodding, as a result, despite the creative team’s various attempts to mimic the film’s soaring effect.

Originally produced in London’s West End, the Broadway production includes only one carry-over performer in a leading role, the inimitable Haydn Gwynne as Mrs. Wilkinson, the ballet teacher who uncovers Billy’s dancing talent. I saw David Alvarez in the title role (two other boys rotate in the lead with Alvarez). I caught the PBS-broadcast documentary, Finding Billy, about the extents to which the producers went to discover their American Billy, auditioning thousands of young boys from around the country in a series of extended workshops. The 15 finalists spent two weeks with director Stephen Daldry, choreographer Peter Darling, and musical director David Chase, who carefully vetted the boys for their potential to act, dance, and sing the role. Billy performs center stage for most of the evening; the part requires not only the charisma of a leading man-child, but also the stamina of a polished, veteran performer.

Alvarez, the lovely, now 15-year-old Cuban-Canadian who studies at the American Ballet Theatre, is luminescent as Billy. Alvarez has a quiet command of the role. He’s wistful and slightly brooding, where another performer could be showy and temperamental (perhaps even one of the other two boys who share the role, based on how they appeared in Finding Billy). Alvarez’s strength is ballet. Although he does yeoman’s work with the shows tap and hip-hop inflected numbers, and although his acting is appealing and his singing adequate, watching this young man perform the classical moves is a revelation.

The scene in which Billy stumbles into Mrs. Wilkinson’s ballet studio, wondrously attracted to the poses and positions she tries to craft on the bodies of her recalcitrant young girl students, is one of the most magical I’ve seen in recent theatre-going. In his second clandestine visit to her studio—his father thinks he’s out taking boxing lessons—Billy somehow clicks into position. In the curve of his arm and his back; in the tilt of his head; in the confident pointing of his feet, knees, and thighs; in the small rise of his chin; Billy embodies grace, beauty, and the potential in all of us to create something meaningful, if only for a moment.

Gwynne, as Mrs. Wilkinson, performs the scene beautifully, cloaking her astonishment at Billy’s talent and gently correcting his limbs into the proper position while it dawns on her that she’s found a very special boy with the potential to be a real artist. Her reaction tells more of a story than perhaps any other moment in the production, as a wistful yearning for what she’s lost and will never achieve struggles with her frank appreciation for Billy’s latent ability and her sheer enjoyment at seeing the beauty he’s already wrought.

Mrs. Wilkinson could be a clown role: the washed up, aging dancer consigned to a lifetime of putting heavy-set or gangly girls through the paces of Ballet 101, smoking while she teaches, wearing outrageously colored leg warmers and delivering cutting pronouncements about the lack of talent with which she’s surrounded. Mrs. Wilkinson could be played for laughs, like the self-serving Mrs. Hannigan in Annie. Instead, Gwynne makes the character the production’s emotional center, bringing nuance and care to each moment she’s on stage.

She becomes Billy’s surrogate mother (his own died tragically young, and appears to Billy as a ghost throughout the show), not because she wants to, but because Billy needs her protection and her care and she simply can’t refuse him. She’s moved by Billy’s talent and his sadness; in trumpeting his artistic potential, she’s not living vicariously so much as living at all. Billy reminds her of what art can do. In his physical transformations, she finds grace in an otherwise constrained life.

Billy Elliot paints in much broader strokes the lives of the striking miners whose struggle to keep their jobs and their livelihoods provide the surrounding story. Billy’s home life, administered haphazardly by his still grieving father and a tempestuous older brother who feels with his fists instead of his heart, is a caricature of working class values and lifestyles. Carole Shelley (late of a turn originating the role of Madame Morrible in Wicked) plays Grandma as a dithering joke, hiding her food, forgetting her daily routine, and offering Billy what limited affection she can muster as the family’s only woman. Gregory Jbara (who among other Broadway credits performed as the teddy bear-like gay bodyguard in Victor/Victoria) plays a stolid if limited Dad.

The scene in which Dad watches Billy dance for the first time in front of the judges at the Royal Ballet is Jbara’s finest. His astonished understanding of his son’s talent is moving and somehow true. Alvarez’s solo dance is a tour-de-force of frustrated emotion translated into gorgeous, compelling movement. Jbara’s transformation from an anxious, reluctant stage father unsure of himself in an elite environment to a proud father who sees a way out of certain poverty for his youngest son is another of the production’s few more emotionally complicated moments.

Otherwise, the musical’s emotional arc, signaled with a heavy hand by simplistic pop tunes with music by Elton John and lyrics by Lee Hall, moves predictably from a fierce battle cry roused from striking miners to the resignation of defeat when after a year, they lose their strike and return to the mines with much reduced power and possibility. The dance numbers that convey the struggle between the workers and the police are beautifully choreographed, especially for “Solidarity,” in which miners, police, and the young girl ballet dancers weave together and dance among each other in a way that reveals them as finally one community with more in common than the rather arbitrary lines of their fight would suggest.

Of course, the striking miners support one another as they struggle not to starve without their wages, but their change of heart about Billy’s dancing comes too easily here to be persuasive. The musical is riddled with homophobic remarks about “poofs” (or, in the French, “poufs,” which my online dictionary seems to prefer), British slang for “fags”—any boy who doesn’t box and doesn’t want to be a miner like his older brother and father must be light in his loafers. That the community goes from such homophobic scoffing to financially supporting Billy’s quest to audition for the Royal Ballet with more than the few shillings they can spare happens too quickly here to make sense. The narrative feels contrived, going through its motions as it hurtles toward its inevitably uplifting, triumphal conclusion.

That anxiety about Billy’s sexuality, though, courses through more than one scene of Billy Elliot. Instead of addressing the issue and putting it, as it were, to bed, the book revisits Billy’s fey potential from beginning to end, as though “pouf” is a hiccough that won’t go away. The issue is most complex and nuanced in Billy’s scenes with his friend Michael, who is, in fact, queer. Early on, Michael persuades Billy to dress in his mother’s clothes as a prelude to the rousing number, “Expressing Yourself,” which Hall and John craft as one of the show’s best songs. It helps, too, that David Bologna, whom I saw play Michael, is a firecracker of a young performer. He plays to the audience, blatantly soliciting laughs and applause, but his virtuosic tap dancing, belting voice, and appealing countenance make him difficult to resist.

Bologna and Alvarez have more chemistry than any other combination of characters in Billy Elliot. Michael is Billy’s comic foil, while Mrs. Wilkinson his partner in his more serious emotional trajectory toward manhood. Michael’s late admission that he is, in fact, a “pouf,” is one of the show’s most unadorned and affecting moments, as it’s clear that as a queer boy, Michael will be trapped in the ultra-masculine world of miners without the escape route that Billy almost magically plots for himself.

The final moment of Billy Elliot is shared between Billy and Michael. As Billy leaves—up the aisle of the theatre’s house, for some reason—Michael rolls down stage center on the bicycle he’s pedaled throughout the show to say good-bye. Billy returns to the stage for the farewell, and kisses his friend chastely on the cheek. In this departing benediction, both boys acknowledge that only one of them will get out alive and, unfortunately, it won’t be the one whose queerness puts him most at risk by staying behind. The sad moment is a bittersweet coda to an otherwise redemptive narrative, and perhaps the only way to excuse all that anxiety about poufs.

In the UK, where Billy Elliot still plays to large audiences, the story’s political content must read more clearly and persuasively. For American spectators, a program note (rare for Broadway productions) explains the history of the 1984 miners strike in response to Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher’s threat to close down the industry. A second act party scene that parodies Thatcher’s much-reviled countenance with oversized puppet heads and caricatured actions could be particularly illegible to those who are most likely the show’s target audience—preteens and teenagers.

In its translation to the US, Billy Elliot loses what might otherwise be its political punch. The miners lose their strike after a long, hungry year, only to return to work chastened and defeated. Daldry makes the point beautifully; the company dons their miners clothes and hard hats, singing “Once we were Kings” as they descend into the stage floor as the song ends. The lights on their hats shine out at the audience as they’re lowered below the stage, blinding us for a moment but underlining that these men who work underground have literally been buried by Thatcher’s union-bashing, anti-worker machinations. The resonant image is chilling.

The New York reviews rhapsodized Billy Elliot as the saving grace of the Broadway season, and the show will probably win a number of Tony awards that will extend its box office life. I sat behind a woman who was seeing the show for the fourth time and provided an unsolicited disquisition about the differences among the three Billys and the two Michaels. Fans like her, and the word of mouth they’ll promote, should keep the show running despite the economic crisis that closed almost ten Broadway shows at once at the beginning of the month. Although I don’t think Billy Elliot deserves all of its critical encomiums, those few enchanting scenes that anchor an otherwise ordinary but perfectly pleasant evening make seeing it worthwhile.

The Feminist Spectator