When hype typically surrounds a Broadway project most critics enter the theater prepared to be let down. By definition hype is the diabolically linked to expectation, and expectations rarely align with reality.
But sometimes something rare makes an appearance. “Billy Elliot the Musical” is rare.
The hype surrounding Elton John and Lee Hall’s 2005 Tony Award winner for Best Musical has been placed, as it should, on the role of the 11-year-old boy fighting against a social revolution swirling around him just to be who he truly is. A dancer. But the real beauty in “Elliot” is how it somehow captures the truth behind the depression and turmoil during the infamous miners’ strike of 1984 in North Eastern England, while still offering a compelling score.
Billy is a boy who recently lost his mother and is son to a father and brother both embroiled in the minors strike. Some may simply dismiss Billy’s family as over-masculine and misogynistic when they disapprove of Billy trading in his boxing gloves for a pair of ballet slippers, but it’s much more than that. This is a family who can barely put food on the table because they’ve decided to fight for what they believe in. When a boy says he wants to dance it’s as if he’s saying he cares nothing about their revolution, which is being fought in the name of their children.
Peter Darling’s award-winning choreography is the production’s true success. The ensembles’ movements are interweaved in the everyday lives of the mineworkers and the brutality of the police’s response to the strikers. One ballet lesson specifically sticks out, featuring the dance class dancing with the miners as they work.
Ty Forhan is utterly spectacular as Billy. How the directors found one boy, let alone four to embody the talent needed to carry this show is mind boggling. The pivotal scene where Billy realizes he can no longer deny who he is and his emotions explode into dance is Forhan at his most breathtaking.
Rich Hebert is also compelling as Billy’s father. Herbert peels back the layers of a man who is simply trying to take care of his family and cope with the death of his wife. In the end giving his son a better life than he’s had naturally leads to acceptance.
Leah Hocking offers comedic relief and few tear-jerking moments as Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy’s eccentric dance teacher. She’s at her best when she finds out her first star student has been accepted into The Royal Ballet School and will be leaving her. Struck by the emotions of departure, Hocking also perfectly delivers the sincerity of a woman who’s overjoyed she’s saved one child from having to grow up in the unrest spilling over the streets around them.
Jacob Zelonky is also a delight as Billy’s cross-dressing best friend Michael. I was personally happy to see that they took care to carry this part of the 2000 movie, on which the musical is based, over to the musical. They actually give him a full fledged show-stopping number, complete with full drag, backup dancers and sequined backdrop.
Ian MacNeil’s phenomenally intricate moving set plays almost like one of the dancers as beds, tables, fences and the like move on and off stage mostly by the actors. An extremely large ensemble (especially for a national tour) is draped in Nicky Gillibrand’s authentic depressive mid-‘80s era garb.
There have been many historic civil disputes put to music (“The Good War,” “Hairspray,” “The Civil War”). But too often the topic is watered down succumbing to a peppy score to keep the audience engaged. “Elliot” gives its audience a little more credit. It’s very reminiscent of “Les Miserables,” the definitive piece on the subject of musicals chronicling social unrest. When the show starts with the beginning of the miners strike, you witness a community on the verge of social mutiny. Much like the French Revolution, if depicted with the truth and resiliency of its depressive reality, you can’t help but to find a relative hit on your hands.
“Billy Elliot the Musical” runs through Sunday, March 25, at the Palace Theatre, 34 W. Broad Street, Columbus. Tickets are $28-$78. For more information visit www.capa.com.