Spectacle can come in many forms. It can be a media blitz, like the kind that accompanied last night’s opening performance of Billy Elliot the Musical when Elton John, Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey entered the Oriental Theatre. Or it can be the energetic curtain call, where the entire cast comes out for a giant celebration in tutus and tap. Or, it can also be the moment Billy Elliot, played last night by the freakishly talented Cesar Corrales (there are four boys who rotate this extremely demanding role), tentatively takes center stage to explain what dance means to him, only to knock us out in his powerhouse showstopper, “Electricity” — a performance which received a thunderous, mid-show standing ovation.
But Billy Elliot isn’t all flash and fire. In the end, it’s a story about family, brotherhood and reaching for what you believe in — no matter how painful or difficult the climb. Set in a northern England working class town during the 1984 coal miners’ strike, everyone is lost and searching for something. Billy’s father, played by Armand Schultz, is still grieving the loss of his wife while fighting for his livelihood as a union cole miner. Mrs. Wilkinson, the steely dance teacher down the street (embodied by an uncompromising Emily Skinner), barely bothers to take her coat off or extinguish her cigarette to instruct the girls in her class. And Billy’s dotty grandma wanders the house looking for…well, we’re not quite sure what she’s looking for. But she’ll let you know when she finds it, that’s for damn sure.
But the quietly brooding Billy doesn’t even know what he’s searching for, or even that he is. He’s just lost. However, when he hangs around after boxing practice one afternoon, he accidentally attends Mrs. Wilkinson’s ballet class, and destiny takes over, a bond is formed and a love story begins.
This is a sweet, honestly told tale. Just like the wonderfully subtle 2000 movie, it avoids sentiment and cheap emotion. While there are some big sets and even bigger production numbers — as staged by Peter Darling, featuring giant tap-dancing dresses and aerial acrobatics — director Stephen Daldry keeps the entire show grounded in humanity. Book writer and lyricist Lee Hall has done a wonderful job adapting his screenplay in a unique and completely theatrical way. And Sir Elton’s eclectic score manages to find a way for each character to have a musical voice that fits them perfectly.
But this is Billy’s show, and Corrales is a powerhouse. I’m sure the other boys who rotate the role are just fine, but this young man had a lot riding on his shoulders last night, and he pulled it off fearlessly. A stunning performance, well worth the ticket price.
Also: a note for parents. I saw a lot of young kids in the audience last night. The show is nearly three hours long and addresses some adult themes, using adult language (though much of it is cloaked in thick Newcastle dialects). So bear this in mind.
Following your dream can be difficult, especially when all odds seem designed against you. But perseverance and talent will pay off in the end — and this is a message that I think we can all dance home with. (Though, I wouldn’t recommend doing any splits.)
Oh, and it goes without saying: Chicago has a hit on its hands with Billy Elliot. Get your tickets.
“Billy Elliot the Musical” is playing through Nov. 28, 2010 at the Oriental Theatre. Go here for more information >