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Wednesday, January 23,2013

A soaring success

by ALLAN I. ROSS

This story was corrected on Jan. 23 to say that there were five musicians playing in the orchestra pit and five more playing in a remote room.

There’s a scene near the beginning of Act II of “Billy Elliot the Musical” when the 12-year-old title character (played by Ben Cook) has a vision of himself as a grown-up ballet dancer. As the lights dim and the theme from “Swan Lake” begins, smoke pours across the stage and the two start to dance in unison. True ballet is rarely incorporated into these kinds of shows. Seeing the majesty and the beauty of the professional dancer was nearly heartbreaking. 

Then, as the music swells, they begin to interact, with the older version lifting his younger self higher and higher into the air, before hooking young Billy up to a wire and physically throwing him to the ceiling where he hangs, suspended in mid-air, spinning in tight circles. 

It was one the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen on stage. 

“Billy Elliot” is an extraordinary movie-into-musical adaptation. It incorporates elements of a wide range of dance styles (was that a little bit of “Gangnam Style” at the top of the show?) and expertly blends elements of drama, comedy and history with a dash of melodrama for good measure. (Come on — a letter sung by Billy’s dead mother from beyond the grave? There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.) 

Framed by the doomed ’84 coal miners strike in the U.K., the proletarians vs. the government-bent lends a “Les Miz” feeling to the story gives the show real gravity when it needs it. Billy, the son of a coal miner, has been forced to take boxing lessons, but he discovers a natural gift for ballet after happening upon a local dance class and is now contemplating honing his talent. 

Sure, familiar elements abound — being met with ridicule by the town’s alpha males; a sassy cross-dressing best friend; a cynical mentor with a heart of gold — but the creative use of interpretive dance and the use of the full range of emotions, including rage, humor, frustration and despair deliver just as well.

Elton John wrote the music and Lee Hall, who was nominated for an Academy Award for penning the film's screenplay, adapted the book and wrote the lyrics. Lee’s closeness to the material makes the transitions into and out of the musical numbers feel seamless; one of the songs actually begins as a spoken word piece that morphs into the song and then into dance. It’s incredible to behold. 

Unfortunately, the small orchestra (there were five musicians in the pit and five others in a remote room) kept any of the show’s crescendos from really getting your heart pounding. And the abundance of tap dancing was slightly disappointing. I love a good tap number as much as the next person, but for a show about ballet, I thought there’d be more, you know, ballet.  

But these are trifles, really. Solid acting, soaring dance numbers, earnest songs, and just enough slapstick to keep itself from being too serious. Sometimes you can have it all. 

“Billy Elliot the Musical”
Wharton Center
Through Jan. 20
7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday- Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday,
1 p.m. & 6:30 p.m. Sunday
$32-$72
(800) WHARTON
whartoncenter.com

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