Yesterday I went into London and, with a visiting friend, went to see the musical Billy Elliot. It’s been running for the past three years at the Victoria Palace theatre, a great old place, very ornate, but with comfortable seats, good sightlines, and even air conditioning. The music for the show was composed by Elton John and had the sound and feel of his work rather than that of more traditional musical theatre scores. Of course, thanks to Lloyd Weber and company, what is traditional anymore?
The show’s story is that of a 12-year old boy from a coal mining family caught up in England’s 1984 Coal Miners Strike and his interest in becoming a ballet dancer and getting into the Royal Ballet School. So there’s plenty of strike warfare and family tension fronting rags-to-riches and homophobia themes. And, oh yes, Billy’s mom’s ghost appears periodically to urge him to follow his dreams. Schmaltz galore!
The performances were very good and the production is of a very high quality. The set design was clever, with lots of sliding wagons and under-stage elevators, and they even got in some faux snowfall. There was, of course, a huge amount of dancing and it was fun to see. Ballet, tap, and jazz – the cast looked like they were having a ball.
Our performance’s Billy was a fellow with a lot of gymnastic skill and many of his dance numbers included thinly-disguised tumbling runs; entertaining all the same, though. There was even an aerial bit but the all too obvious cable took much away from it.
The title role is shared among four different child actors in rotation and the program revealed there have been 15 Billy’s in the last three years. Eight young girls perform as Billy’s classmates at the local ballet school and there’s an assortment of other children in the cast, as well. So – a good family show, eh? Well, no. First, there’s a ton of expletives in the script, coming out everyone’s mouths and, second, the teenage gender-orientation angst the script dwells on might be a bit much for younger kids. Definitely not Disney approved despite the feel-good setting.
The show was entertaining enough that the three hours (with one intermission) went by quickly. We sat in the Stalls (Orchestra) about 15 rows back and under the balcony but the sound system was excellent and we could hear every word, said or sung. We also had a good view of the slightly raked stage floor and the dancers’ feet – especially important for appreciating good tap.
The curtain call started out very weirdly with a clumsy cast bow and then went into what looked like a gratuitous dance number/encore they couldn’t fit in anywhere else. However, that soon became the real curtain call with individual, ensemble, and full cast bows. Despite the Elton John score, there was no signature song that we left the theatre humming.
There’s quite a good website for the show here: Billy Elliot The Musical.