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Margaret Croyden

"Billy Elliot the Musical"

Billy Elliot the Musical
Directed by Stephen Daldry
choreography by Peter Darling
Music Elton John
Imperial Theater
249 West 45th Street
June 8, 2009

It is no wonder that "Billy Elliot" won so many Tony awards. Rightly so. If you want to have a total theater experience and a memorable evening full of joy and exuberance, see "Billy Elliot," a remarkable achievement. Although "Billy Elliot" is listed as a Broadway musical, it is not an ordinary one. With a poignant story and some terrific acting, besides unusual dancing, and gifted young people who make up the plot, I assure you will be happy when you come out of the theater and will long remember it. All the young boys who play the lead--the role is divided among three of them--are first rate. I was fortunate to see David Alvarez at one performance and he was wonderful-- a remarkable actor and a terrific dancer. But all the boys are great and critics have found it difficult to choose the best. The Tony nominations were clever; they nominated not one of the boys but all three. And the Drama Desk had awarded the entire production "best musical" with the top number of votes in all categories beating all the opposition.

The story by Lee Hall is taken from the movie which itself was a great success. The stage production is a demonstration of all aspects of theater strung together with imagination and verve. It is set in Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's time during the miners strike, 1984. Billy's father is a leader in the strike and he is a typical working class man, conventional, tough and loyal to the union. His son, Billy Elliot, a boy of 12-14 has secretly been going to a dance instructor's classes, instead of to boxing lessons, traditional in that environment. When the father learns of his son's ambitions, he is furious and, in typical fashion, forbids his son to continue his lessons. But Billy, with the help of a sympathetic teacher (played by Haydn Gwynne) tries to pursue his longing to become a dancer. After few lessons, the teacher sees that Billy is gifted and manages to get him an audition with the Royal Ballet. The father is furious at first but in the end he is a lovable Dad, surprised at his son's talent and encourages him.

One of the great things about this production is the dancing. David Alvarez is a remarkable dancer; he can do anything: tap, twirl on a wire hanging from the ceiling, execute the most complicated ballet movements, all the while staying in character. He is a terrific actor. His performance will stay with you forever. In the play, he is haunted by the death of his mother at an early age. He seems lonely and vulnerable. His father and brother are busy with the strike, so is the rest of the community. Billy's scenes with his teacher and his longing to be a good dancer are poignant and so moving that I felt tears well up in my eyes. David Alvarez's youthfulness and tender personality is something to behold; his mastery of these qualities for such a young actor was truly amazing.

Also wonderful is the boy's father, played beautifully by Gregory Jbara who, bedazzled by his son, comes to understand the boy's gifts. Especially wonderful is Elton John's song "Expressing Yourself" sung and danced by Billy that demonstrates and explains his love for dancing.

In the background is the chorus of miners with their songs and their ironic lines about Margaret Thatcher. And one can't overlook the huge cast of young people, really young, who contribute to the terrific energy of the production. They double as the miners' children as well as the young dancers in the class and are amusingly awkward as they learn to dance. In every scene we get a sense of the life of a miners' town and these chidden add a certain reality to the play, which makes this musical different from others because the director totally captured the ambiance of the strike and the aspirations of the youth who tries to break away from the working class to achieve something more. Of course we have had this kind of plot before, but in this show it is ingenious; we don't expect this sense of reality and this obvious comment on the English working class and their lives of hardship and oppression under Margaret Thatcher who worked to break the unions.

To handle this huge cast the director must really be a magician. And Stephen Daldry is. Working with the choreographer and set designer, he has been able to integrate all the elements -- the music, the dramatic story, the dancing and the huge ensemble of actors, dancers, singers. And all the children. One gets involved not only in the spectacular dancing, but in the characters of the miners and the rest of the ensemble. They truly become real to us.
If you see nothing else this season, catch this spectacular production. Beg, borrow or steal the money for the price of admissions, but it will be worth it, I promise.

Margaret Croyden's latest book is "Conversations with Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Fairer, Straus and Giroux).

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