Theatre review: Billy Elliot the Musical is surprising

The most surprising thing about Billy Elliot the Musical is that it isn’t all about Billy.

As probably the only person on the planet who hasn’t seen the 2000 British film on which the musical is based, I had always assumed that Billy Elliot was about, well, Billy Elliot.  And while that is true for a good part of this tale about the young lad who trades boxing gloves for ballet shoes, the politics of the day often overshadow Billy’s story, particularly in act one.

Set during the mid-80s United Kingdom miner’s strike, the angry sentiment of the day, which eventually saw some 300,000 miner’s out-of-work, is never far from the surface here.  Aggressive and sometimes very angry, the Lee Hall and Elton John penned musical attempts to combine Billy’s dream of becoming a ballet star with the harsh realities of the time.  Director Stephen Daldry and choreographer Peter Darling merge the two stories at various points with interesting results and while they don’t always work, it does add to the surprising nature of the show.

Members of the cast of the national touring production of Billy Elliot the Musical
Members of the national touring production of Billy Elliot the Musical.

At the centre of the story of course is Billy, played by Drew Minard on opening night (he shares the title role with three others who perform on different nights).  According to the program, the young boy from Iowa is a dancer and it shows.  While his vocals were not the best of the night and his acting at times felt a little hesitant, he simply shines in his dance numbers; his pas de deux with his future self, which is beautifully danced by Maximilen A Baud, is a highlight of the night.

With legs that seem to go on forever, Janet Dickinson gives Billy’s dance mentor Mrs Dickinson a suitably no-nonsense exterior as she fights against the male dominated world of the miners.  As father and brother to Billy, Rich Herbert and Cullen R Titmas are at times as heart-wrenching as they are bastards; Herbert is particularly good here as his tough as nails façade must fall away as he embraces and ultimately encourages Billy’s dream.

Other standouts include Jake Kitchin (who shares duties with Sam Poon) as Billy’s friend Michael.  A joy to watch, Kitchin is the embodiment of his character’s unashamed willingness to explore his true self with his cross-dressing number “Expressing Yourself” a definite showstopper.  Special mention must also go to the girls of Mrs Dickinson’s ballet class, and even though they may have a tendency to over-act one cannot ignore their mega-cute factor.

If there is anyone else out there that has not seen the film you may very well be as surprised as I was about Billy Elliot the Musical, and while act one was a tough go, it pays off big in act two when it finally finds its heart.

3 Out of 5 Stars Billy Elliot the Musical

Books and lyrics by Lee Hall.  Music by Elton John.  Based on the Universal Pictures/Studio Canal film.  A Broadway Across Canada presentation of a Universal Pictures Stage Productions, Working Title Films, Old Vic Productions and Networks Presentations production.  On stage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre through April, 7, 2013.

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