by Lynn on March 2, 2011

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Canon Theatre. Book and lyrics by Lee Hall. Directed by Stephen Daldry. Music by Elton John. Choreography by Peter Darling. Set by Ian MacNeil. Costumes by Nicky Gillibrand. Lighting by Rick Fisher. Sound by Paul Arditti. Starring: Cesar Corrales, Cynthia Darlow, Kate Hennig, Patrick Mulvey, Jim Ortlieb, Armand Schultz, Dillon Stevens, Anne Tolpegin.
Presented by Mirvish Productions

After much ado, lots of hype, the presence of Sir Elton John, BILLY ELLIOT the musical has finally opened at the Canon Theatre, and on the whole, it was worth the wait.

Playwright Lee Hall has adapted his screenplay of the film leaving the basic story intact. It’s 1984, in a mining town in Northern England. Then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wants to close the mines and crush the unions. The miners strike to save their industry.

Against this story is Billy Elliot, 11 years old, who wanders into Mrs. Wilkinson’s ballet class after he had his boxing lesson. He isn’t smitten with ballet at first, but when he finally ‘gets it’ it’s life changing. He doesn’t tell his father he isn’t going to boxing anymore because it’s ballet that has his heart. But his father finds out and is livid. He’s on strike. He can’t afford the 50 pence needed for what he thinks are boxing lessons, but he finds it anyway. He now forbids Billy from taking ballet lessons.

Mrs. Wilkinson sees great potential in Billy and thinks he’s good enough to audition for the Royal Ballet School. She offers to train him for free. Arrangements are made for her to take Billy to the audition until his father finds out and puts a stop to it. Mrs. Wilkinson faces Billy’s father telling him the kid has a chance for a better future, a chance to leave their dying town. Matters turn ugly. There is violence in the town with a huge police force bearing down on the strikers. The pressure on Billy is tremendous. One way of life (Billy’s father etc.) is shutting down in that region while another (Billy) faces a possible new future.

Director Stephan Daldry has directed this production as he has the West End and Broadway productions, with an eye to the big picture as well as the little details. (He also directed the film.) From the get go Daldry firmly establishes the difficulty of these miners and their families with newsreel projections of Mrs. Thatcher announcing her plans; the miners protesting; and police trying to keep the peace. This is the backdrop against which Billy must cope and thrive.

Elton John’s music is at times stirring (“The Stars Look Down”, “Once We We Were Kings” for the miners and their anthem), whimsical, (“Shine”, “Expressing Yourself” for Mrs. Wilkinson and her dance class; for Billy and his friend Michael) and rousing (“Angry Dance”, “Electricity” for Billy’s solos).

As Billy, Cesar Corrales is dazzling. He is poised, buoyant, and in the zone when he is dancing. Corrales is a believable young actor and good singer for one so young–he’s 14.

As Mrs. Wilkinson the ballet teacher, Kate Hennig is f****** special, to quote a line she gives to Billy. Hennig has all the sass and savvy of a woman who’s had to fight for everything she’s got. It is a fierce, hugely confident performance.

If there is a star besides Cesar Corrales as Billy, it’s the choreography of Peter Darling. It is vibrant, athletic, frenzied at times and beautifully establishes the ‘other world’ Billy ‘flies’ to when he dances. The pas de deux Billy dances with his older imagined self (an impressive Samuel Pergande) is one of the most moving parts of the production.

I do have some concerns. The company seems uneven and the pacing is too often laboured. As Billy’s Dad, Armand Schultz bellows everything, as does Patrick Mulvey as Tony, Billy’s older brother. You want to tell them and others, ‘Come on. You’re all wearing body mics–they can hear you in Hamilton if you just talk normally. When you bellow the audience stops listening.” And the pacing in some cases is glacial. Some jokes or funny send-ups land like a thud because the pacing is so slow. Attention is needed to tighten the pace–the evening won’t seem as long as it does as a result.

But as I say at the beginning, there is a lot to like and admire in this production, not the least of which is Cesar Corrales as Billy and Kate Hennig as Mrs. Wilkinson.

BILLY ELLIOT the musical plays at the Canon Theatre until July 10, 2011.

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