David Alvarez is “Billy Elliot”, photo by Sara Krulwich
Last week I saw the Broadway musical Billy Elliot, which arrived in New York City last month after debuting in London more than three years ago. Based on the 2000 movie directed by Stephen Daldry, who also directs the musical, Billy Elliot is not about dance, but rather about the urge to dance – and sadly, about the conflict between dreams and reality. The eleven-year-old title character, played by the talented David Alvarez on the night I attended, lives with his widowed father and older brother in a working-class Northern England town that is dealing with the 1984 coalminers’ strike. Although Billy is sent to boxing class with other local boys, he accidentally ends up in the girls’ ballet class, where the chain-smoking teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (superbly played by Haydn Gwynne) takes Billy under her wing and prepares him to audition for the Royal Ballet School after recognizing his potential.
The show spends equal amounts of time revealing Billy’s conflict with his father, who insists that his son only take boxing, and the miners’ conflict with the police and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The opening number occurs on the eve of the miners’ strike, showing downtrodden men uniting and preparing for what’s to come (it was strikingly similar to the opening of Les Misérables), while the next scene shows Billy in his boxing class, and then in ballet with Mrs. Wilkinson and a flock of overly-enthusiastic girls in tutus. The two worlds collide in the excellent “Solidarity”, which combines the frustrations of the miners, the police, and the daily routine of Billy and the girls in ballet class. This was undoubtedly the most complex and enjoyable scene in the show.
David Alvarez and the ballet girls in Billy Elliot, photo by Sara Krulwich
Alvarez beautifully captures Billy’s urge to move, and throughout the nearly 3-hour show, he performs tap, ballet, jazz, and acrobatics with precision, spirit, and often mind-boggling speed, all choreographed by Peter Darling. Billy’s anxiety and frustration about his unfortunate circumstances and his father’s disapproval of ballet explode in “Angry Dance”, a tap number that closes the first half. And in “Electricity”, his love of dance and dreams of escaping reality shine through in spite of his inability to articulate – with words – how he feels when he moves.
With the exception of “Solidarity”, Elton John’s melodies and Lee Hall’s lyrics are not memorable, and at times the show attempts to wow the crowd in an over-the-top manner, like with “Expressing Yourself”, which includes giant-sized dresses that Michael, Billy’s flamboyant friend, likes to try on. The quiet, simple ending – embodying Billy’s mixed emotions about leaving home – was touching until the entire cast joined him for a flashy finale with everyone in tutus. Setting this aside, Billy Elliot successfully portrays contrasting dreams and reality, and the ways in which the well-developed characters struggle with them. For Billy, dance is not just a means of escape. It’s his true calling, and the duet for Billy and his older self (played by former New York City Ballet dancer Stephen Hanna) suggests that his dreams are not beyond his reach.