Saturday, October 24, 2015

Billy Elliot (Universal Stage Productions, Working Title Films, Old Vic Productions, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s PBS Fall Arts Festival offering was Billy Elliot: The Musical, a story which began life as a 2000 film dealing with a 12-year-old lad named Billy Elliot who’s growing up in the (fictional) coal-mining town of Everington in County Durham in northern England, who discovers that what he really wants to do with his life is be a ballet dancer. It’s set against the backdrop of the U.K. coal miners’ strike in 1984-85, which lasted a year and was a total defeat for the workers, who were essentially starved into submission and came crawling back to the pits on British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s terms, thereby breaking the U.K.’s tradition of labor solidarity and permanently weakening the power of organized labor in Britain. The tale has more than a family resemblance to Emlyn Williams’ play The Corn is Green, done on the U.S. stage with Ethel Barrymore and filmed in 1945 with Bette Davis and again in 1979 with Katharine Hepburn, which also takes place in a coal-mining town in Britain (though that one is in Wales instead of northern England), the young boy is a young man, and what he wants to leave the village to do isn’t become a dancer but go to college and become a scholar. In The Corn Is Green what’s holding the ambitious young man back isn’t a huge labor battle and the disapproval of his family (what’s left of it) and peers, but the fact that he got a young girl “with child” and her family is demanding he marry her and work in the mines (like virtually every other male in town) to support her and the baby — and the schoolteacher who coached him agrees to adopt the baby and raise the kid herself so he can go on and fulfill his dreams. Of course, Billy Elliot also has a relationship to virtually every other novel, play and movie ever written about someone from a provincial (in both senses of the term) background who must rise above both financial constraints and local disapproval to get the hell out of there and fulfill his or her dreams in a more urban environment — if there are, as some critics have said, only six basic plots in all movies, that certainly is one of them! The film cost £3 million to make and became a surprise hit, making a worldwide gross of £72,853,509, so its producers decided to see how else they could make money off Lee Hall’s gritty story of following your dreams no matter what the consequences. So in 2005 Universal, which produced the movie, had its stage division recruit partners to commission a musical for London’s West End, with Lee Hall adapting his script for the movie and writing lyrics and Elton John doing the music.

The musical premiered in Australia (talk about your out-of-town tryouts! They did an out-of-continent tryout!) in 2007 and became an international hit even though it’s difficult to cast, not only because the male lead is supposed to be a 12-year-old boy with an incredible talent and skill as a dancer, but because of restrictions in both the U.K. and the U.S. on how many hours a child performer can work, each production has to cast three actors as Billy Elliot and rotate them through the run so they can meet the usual theatrical schedule of eight shows a week. The performance PBS filmed took place in 2014 and captured Elliott Hanna’s remarkable (that’s putting it mildly!) singing, dancing and acting in the title role a year before he aged out of it and left the cast, and in honor of both the casting and the length of the run, the musical included several encores, including a huge dance done by a bunch of boys and young men (since there’s one scene in which Billy does a largely airborne dance with his future self, which required yet a fourth, older male to play Billy as his later dancer self), all wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with the name “BILLY,” as well as a number for Billy Elliot to show off his dance skills that frankly looks more like Michael Jackson than either Rudolf Nureyev or Fred Astaire. Indeed, the question we’re asking throughout the show is why Billy wants to bother learning ballet when he’s already so good at tap! I suspect the movie, which I’ve never seen, is grittier and more class-conscious, though the musical has a surprising degree of the original’s social comment. It begins with a film clip of Labour Party official Herbert Morrison in 1945, in the wake of Labour’s sweeping electoral victory and the resulting nationalization of the British coal mines, that at last the mines belong to “the people” and therefore there will be no more labor disputes, just a smooth transition throughout the economy to a democratic socialism in which people will look out for each other instead of competing. Well, we all know how dismally that turned out, and the ironies come fast as the show segues into an opening protest song, “Solidarity,” expressing the miners’ hopes for the future — as the setting dissolves from the 1940’s to the 1980’s, into the era of Thatcher, Conservative political dominance, re-privatization of the mines and everything else the postwar Labour government had nationalized, and the dominance of The Market that has become the triumphant ideology pretty much worldwide.

Lee Hall’s script does a good, if not always smooth, job contrasting the dashed hopes of the miners, who as Billy’s father Jackie (Deka Walmsley) realizes towards the end (when he’s willing to scab to raise the money Billy needs to attend the Royal School of Ballet in London) are already obsolete and pathetic, with Billy’s dreams of literally soaring in mid-air as a professional dancer. Billy stumbles into ballet class when its teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson (Ruthie Henshall), is using the basement room just after a boxing class he’s been sent to by his dad, in which he’s been obliged to take punches at his best friend Michael (Zach Atkinson) despite the acute disinterest of both boys in fisticuffs. Billy takes to ballet but worries about the reactions not only of his dad and his brother Tony (Chris Grahamson, who I thought was the hottest man in the cast — though perhaps the fact that he’s introduced in a home scene wearing a T-shirt, bikini briefs and nothing else helped me form that impression), who’s the most militant of the union people we see (at one point he goes out to confront the riot squad in a Che Guevara T-shirt!) but of the townspeople who will automatically assume that because he wants to be a ballet dancer, he must be a “poof” — i.e., Gay. About the only support he gets from his family is from his grandmother (his mom died of cancer three years before the main action, so grandma is the only woman in the Elliot family), who’s played brilliantly by Ann Emery and is so cool about Billy and who he really is he reminded me of all the marvelous stories my client Peter has told me about his grandmother, who taught him to dance, let him wear her clothes and was the only person in his family who figured out on her own that he was Gay. Billy’s determination not to be stereotyped in his sexual orientation becomes even more complicated when, in a clever and quite inspiring scene between Billy and his age-peer friend Michael (his only age-peer friend, judging from the look of things), Michael dresses in women’s clothes and sings a song in praise of ladies’ fashions — and Billy joins him in donning drag and singing the song as a duet. This is supposed to be the big giveaway that Michael is Gay and, what’s more, he has a pre-adolescent crush on Billy. (Mrs. Wilkinson’s assistant, Mr. Braithwaite, played by David Muscat, is also a quite obvious screaming-queen Gay stereotype.)

Lee Hall is reasonably competent at throwing complications in the way of Billy’s dream, including the first one — that the regional audition for the Royal Ballet School in Newcastle just happens to occur on the day of the biggest riot between the police and the miners in the history of the strike, and a frustrated Billy does his most emotionally powerful dance of the night, expressing himself in silent but highly mobile anguish on the set of his bedroom, which for some reason lifts itself from under the stage and does a corkscrew motion on a turntable so he can ascend the stairs supplied on the construction and use it. (The men’s and women’s bathrooms in the basement used for the ballet schools also take on crucial importance in the action.) So Billy has to do his audition later at the Royal Ballet School’s home theatre in London — and not only is he intimidated by the sheer size of the theatre and the prissy attitude of the upper-class boy who’s his principal competitor, instead of bringing sheet music for the piano accompanist to play, he’s brought a cassette, and the cassette first loses its tape and then, when he manually rewinds it with a pencil (something I remember doing!), it wows, flutters and screws up when he plays it for his audition. (Fortunately, the piece is the opening of the second act of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake — when I heard the music I savored the irony of one Gay composer, Elton John, making way for another, Tchaikovsky! — so anyone working as a rehearsal pianist for a ballet company would know it.) Billy Elliot has its weaknesses — as I already pointed out, the gap between the on-stage Billy’s (or Elliott Hanna’s) already formidable talent as a dancer and his desperation to get trained so he can do ballet clash with each other, but then again if Billy weren’t already a great dancer we wouldn’t have a show, and the sheer amount of dancing, especially in the after-show sequence when we get three, count ’em, three mega-production numbers in rapid succession and about midway through the third one I found all that dancing more oppressive than entertaining — but for the most part it’s a quite engaging show, even though the politics are more an elegy for Leftist hopes lost than a genuine spirit of hope for the future.