THEATER | "Billy Elliot" flies high at the Orpheum Theatre

Photo by Peter Brosilow, courtesy Hennepin Theatre Trust

Something fun happens in the last few seconds of Billy Elliot. I won't reveal what it is, except to say that people who enjoyed OK Go at Rock the Garden this summer will be pleased. It's not really a big deal, but it's there, and it's typical of a production that doesn't settle for "good enough." Time and again in this show, a scene or song or effect is good enough—and then the show gives us a little more.

Billy Elliot, with music by Elton John and book/lyrics by Lee Hall, is by far the most hotly anticipated touring Broadway musical to come to Minnesota this year. The adaptation of the 2000 film won ten Tony Awards in 2009, including Best Musical. The story was a natural for adaptation to the stage, and seeing the stage production Friday night I was reminded how strong the plot is. Billy (on Friday night, Michael Dameski) is the young son of an widowed English coal miner (Rich Hebert) in 1984, when the miners were on an unsuccessful yearlong strike to prevent Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government from putting an end to the state-run coal industry. The burnt-out local dance teacher (Faith Prince) discovers that Billy has a talent for dance, and Billy's family and community are challenged to find both the tolerance and the money to allow Billy to audition for the Royal Ballet School.

billy elliot, presented through january 9 at the orpheum theatre. for tickets ($33-$133.50) and information, see hennepintheatretrust.org.

The premise could be a recipe for a trainload of saccharin sentiment, but the film and the musical—both directed by Stephen Daldry—succeed with strong characterizations, gentle wit, and a tough, surprisingly substantive perspective on the labor conflict. We're allowed to see the real existential desperation of these men, who are fighting to save a way of life that's being swept away by forces far larger than them, larger even than Margaret Thatcher and her entire government. Little Billy is full of promise and pride, and a less intelligent take on this material would conflate his achievements with those of the community; here, though, Billy's individual success is poignantly tied to the failure of the common good. Should Billy's dad break the picket line and go to work as a scab so his son can have a shot at success? There are not a lot of big-budget Broadway musicals that engage such thorny ethical questions.

Oh, sorry—did I mention that the show is a lot of fun? The dance numbers are exuberant, particularly the ensemble numbers where the laborers' conflicts with the police are interwoven with Billy's story in fugue-like choreography by Peter Darling. Truth be told, though, dance is really not this production's strength. Darling's choreography for Billy's solo numbers and for Billy's fantasy pas de deux with an older version of himself (Maximilien A. Baud) is fairly conventional and, for all the storm and thunder in the music pit, not particularly thrilling. Darling's work was more exciting on film, with the help of a well-curated post-punk soundtrack. Though I missed T. Rex in the stage adaptation, John's songs are good—they're show tunes that omit neither the "show" nor the "tune." It's been a while since I walked out of a new Broadway musical actually whistling a tune from the show, but with Billy Elliot, Captain Fantastic had me hooked.

This production's great strengths are its smart script and its strong acting. Across the board, Daldry's casting choices seem to suggest that he prioritized acting chops over dancing or singing skills, and that was a wise strategy. Dameski finds a good balance between boyish brattiness and sincere emotion, and the adult actors around him evoke a warm community going through a very tough time. The young actors get all the best lines in this show, and Jacob Zelonky was unsurprisingly a crowd favorite as Billy's flamboyant cross-dressing pal. (The story treads on thin ice by setting a seemingly gay boy up as a comic foil to Billy's decidedly heterosexual ballet-dancing lead—wearing tights doesn't mean you're gay, get it?—but both the film and stage production draw Michael's character so tenderly that they get away with it.) In the minor role of the ballet teacher's plain-spoken daughter, Rachel Mracna steals every scene she's in.

Except for when they need to be (for example, in "Expressing Yourself," Michael's ode to sartorial freedom), Ian MacNeil's sets are appropriately inconspicuous, sliding in and out of view as the characters move from one part of town to another. Margaret Thatcher's tenure is sufficiently distant both geographically and chronologically that her name won't mean much to a lot of young theatergoers, but liberals born in the 60s or earlier will surely delight at the appearance of a giant puppet that presents Thatcher in caricature as a wicked witch.

In our holiday theater guide, I described a gift of tickets to Billy Elliot as "one of the most surefire ways to impress" someone special on your gift list this year. If you took my advice and grabbed a pair, neither of you will be disappointed. It's a great show.

This production is featured in the Daily Planet's complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you'll know who's been naughty and who's been nice.

Box Office: 1-800-982-2787

910 Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55403
612-339-7007

Our primary commenting system uses Facebook logins. If you wish to comment without having a Facebook account, please create an account on this site and log in first. If you are already a registered user, just scroll up to the log in box in the right hand column and log in.

Jay Gabler's picture
Jay Gabler

Jay Gabler (@JayGabler) is a digital producer at The Current and Classical MPR.