Sunday, July 17, 2011

In 'Billy Elliot,' Literally Leaping for Joy Amid Despair

Peter Mazurowski as the laconic boy of the title in “Billy Elliot.” Photos by Carol Rosegg.


on the 2000 film by director Stephen Daldry, who also helms the musical version, “Billy Elliot” is set in a bleak English mining town in 1984.

Its backstory involves politics, hopelessness, and the offstage but looming Maggie Thatcher, who forced a strike that closed the mines for a year and eventually the entire national coal industry. In fact, the play opens with television coverage of MT’s position on the National Coal Board and its union. Act 2 begins with a pantomime in Thatcher masks and a song wishing her a Merry Christmas. “Billy Elliot” is based on true events.

Lee Hall, who wrote the script for the film, has deftly repurposed the tale about community in hard times, a young boy’s ambition to dance and the transformative power of art for the stage. “Billy Elliot,” the 2009 Tony winner for Best Musical in an open run at the Imperial Theatre, is dramatic and enthralling. (See video at

There are four Billy’s jeté-ing in rotation through this demanding role. Peter Mazurowski’s abundant talent was in full display at a recent performance. The whole cast is remarkable, but the standouts are the young stars. Cameron Clifford as Billy’s best friend, Michael, is particularly endearing. Alex Dreier makes his Broadway debut as Small Boy, literally leaping onto the stage at the beginning of the play.

Billy’s household is bereft after the loss of his mother; his much older brother, Tony (Will Chase) is a proud and hotheaded working man; his Grandma (Carole Shelley) is perhaps a bit senile and certainly eccentric. Billy’s Dad (Gregory Jbara) is a sad sack trying to be both father and Mum to his boys since his wife’s (Laura Marie Duncan plays the Mum only Billy sees) untimely death. GJ’s performance won him a Tony and is still sweet and nuanced all these curtain calls later.

By complete happenstance, Billy encounters an alternative to the bleak life he knows when he stumbles into Mrs.Wilkinson’s (Emily Skinner) dance classes at the town hall.

Mrs. Wilkinson (Emily Skinner) and a gaggle of ballet girls in “Billy Elliot.”

Resigned to teach “crap” ballet to a gaggle of underwhelming and graceless little girls for 50p a head, Mrs. Wilkinson is astounded by Billy’s innate talent. She champions him and helps him articulate his anger and grief through dance.

At first, Billy is gruff and not especially likable. Self-expression comes hard to him, as it does to his extended family and friends. It’s when he’s pirouetting in ballet slippers or romping and stomping in tap shoes, that Billy finds his voice.

Peter Darling’s choreography is precise, varied and vigorous. He moves the company around in increasingly menacing marches as the strikers clash with the police, and the ballet girls in ungainly formations during their classes. Billy is given an arsenal of awe-inspiring dances to showcase his special skills.

The music by Elton John, set to lyrics by LH, is sometimes bombastic rock, which works really well for the strikers; sometimes ballads, as in the bittersweet “We’d Go Dancing,” and sometimes pop, like the rowdy, “Born to Boogie.”

Billy (Peter Mazurowski) and company in performance in “Billy Elliot.”

This franchise enterprise is going strong. It is currently touring the United States. There are also productions in Toronto and London through 3 Sept. and December 2012, respectively.

“Billy Elliot:” is the sort of show that could easily have become maudlin, or dreary or melodramatic. Instead, it’s a heartwarming, rousing work of theatrical art, executed with finesse and understanding.

Visit to learn more about Broadway and nonBroadway productions of “Billy Elliot.”

Billy Elliot, Paul Taylor Has a Deal for You
Do you know a male or female Billy Elliot? If so, the Paul Taylor Dance Company has an enticing proposition for him or her. Commencing in mid-September for the fall semester, the company’s Taylor School will again offer weekly classes for dancers between the ages of 4 and 19. On 31 July, an open house during which prospective students can sample a dance class, is planned at the new Lower East Side studios of the world renown troupe. An RSVP is required to sample a class. Visit to learn more about the Paul Taylor Dance Company classes for kids and teens and to also RSVP for a sample class.

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