Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

'Rocky' in toe shoes

Broadway's 'Billy Elliot' has all the right moves.

NEW YORK - Gotta dance! And not just ballet. Tap, too, and show dancing. An eruption of street moves. Gymnastics for good measure. A touch of clog. Jump ropes: Yes! Got a harness? Time to fly.

Billy Elliot, a smash musical in London for three-plus years, has all the moves - and so does Billy Elliot, the show's main character.

It opened on Broadway Thursday with enough energy to turn itself to fireworks, and an enormous A-plus cast playing hardscrabble miners, fearsome police, sweet little-girl ballet wannabes, a grandma with a fleeting memory and a steadfast heart. Plus a nicotine-belching dance teacher with dead-on radar for talent - even when it's embodied in a reluctant 11-year-old boy who moves like a gust of wind in a coal town where all else seems stifled.

Like the 2000 movie with the same director (Stephen Daldry), choreographer (Peter Darling) and writer (Lee Hall, who retooled the script for the stage and wrote lyrics to Elton John's infectious music), Billy Elliot's stage incarnation doesn't just move. It soars - up from the coal mines of northern England, out of the constant street violence between miners who strike and national riot police who strike back, past the poverty and isolation of a red-brick town that is its own intellectually gated community.

The story of a boy who dances equally well when learning technique or letting off steam is Rocky in toe-shoes or Fame with a barre, except for one thing - Billy Elliot, like every other kid in the coal fields, has no dream to appropriate. He has to be given one.

It comes from Mrs. Wilkinson (Haydn Gwynne, delicious in the earthy way she takes no prisoners), who teaches dance at the town social hall where the girls don tutus and the boys, boxing gloves. Billy's gloves don't seem to work. But his legs do, and before long he is hiding out with the tutus.

All this unfolds against the miserable 1984 miners strike that erupted after Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher went on a campaign that included crushing the union. (She's mocked by puppets small and massive in Billy Elliot's single misfire - a production number that has spectacle, not storyline, written all over it.) In a galvanizing piece of theater, the little girls intensely practice their steps while, in the same stage space, police and miners duke it out; it takes a community to raise hell.

And it takes three different Billy Elliots to do this show. So demanding is the singing, acting and multilayered dancing all over Ian MacNeil's wonderful multi-use set that the producers cast revolving Elliots - Trent Kowalik, 13, a Long Islander who's played the role in London; Kiril Kulish, 14, from San Diego, and David Alvarez, 14, a Montrealer transplanted to New York.

I saw Alvarez, a kid with a cool mop of curly black hair, Cuban family ancestry, and a way of moving that brought down the house numerous times. But his is not the only raw force on stage. Others are his grandmother, performed strikingly by Carole Shelley; his sexually conflicted buddy (Frank Dolce at the preview I attended, and also played by David Bologna); his dad, a powerful portrayal from Gregory Jbara; his spitfire older brother, by Santino Fontana, and his dead mum, the lovely Leah Hocking.

She appears as his guide and constant supporter, in a few scenes that are as wrenching as the one in the film, when Billy reads his dancing teacher the letter she left him before she died.

Almost every frame in the movie is laminated with that sort of tension. Almost every minute in the stage musical is driven by character-building and storytelling. And both film and show, in the end, are testaments to the power of the human spirit.