Theater Review: Joy and unexpected resonance in Billy Elliot: The Musical at the Straz Center

Faith Prince is wry and resolute as Mrs. Wilkinson, the frowzy, cigarette-smoking dance teacher who stands up for Billy’s right to pursue ballet. As his bereaved widower father, Rich Hebert gives a layered performance that never drops into macho caricature, and as Billy’s rebellious older brother Tony, who rages against both the mine owners and Mrs. Wilkinson, Jeff Kready conveys the helplessness that fuels that rage. Griffin Birney’s Michael is a blissfully matter-of-fact goofball, and Patti Perkins’ Grandma is a lovely mixture of coarse and wistful. Patrick Wetzel, as Mrs. W’s beer-swilling accompanist, is yet another surprise, but his transformation (it involves tap shoes) is too delicious to spoil.

As for Billy himself, Giuseppe Bausilio (one of four boys who alternate in the role) is extraordinary. OK, maybe he’s a little too obviously dancer-y in appearance (the lady behind me in the audience whispered admiringly, “Look at his calves!”). But he’s a concentrated, charismatic actor who sings passionately, dances ballet, modern and tap with equal skill, and pulls off the difficult transition from no-nonsense boxer to joyous ballerino with aplomb.

As for the number I found frenetic at the Tonys? It’s called, aptly enough, “Angry Dance,” and in person it’s downright harrowing, a face-off between Billy and a phalanx of shield-bearing thugs in which he dances and screams out all the anguish inside him — and it's a tour de force, brilliantly acted, directed and choreographed (by Peter Darling).

Another unexpected feature of the show is how topical it feels. When the miners demonstrate for their rights, it’s hard not to think of the recent events in Egypt. The strike’s somber outcome — it was not successful, forcing thousands of miners from their jobs — is a bracing reminder of dreams deferred. Tony’s initial condemnation of his little brother’s involvement in the “poofter” world of ballet suggests that even within a liberation movement, some liberties are still not tolerated.

And the show’s ultimate message — that “expressing yourself” is the route to personal freedom —  should remain timely as long as our spirits respond to song and dance.

I didn’t know quite what to expect from Billy Elliot: The Musical.

I hadn’t seen the much-beloved 2000 film on which it’s based, and all I knew of the stage adaptation was the frenetic excerpt performed at the 2009 Tonys, during which Billy hauled in 10 awards, including Best Musical (though not one for Elton John’s ebullient score).

As for the subject matter — a 12-year-old boy in a North East England coal-mining family finds his inner ballet dancer against a backdrop of labor unrest and Thatcherism in the mid-’80s — it seemed an unlikely mix of gritty and twee.

Well, unlikely it is. And that’s one of its many resounding virtues. Yes, the milieu (and the language) are gritty, but the details, right down to the dowdy cardigans on the miners’ wives, are exquisitely conceived. And when worlds collide — as in the number “Solidarity,” in which the paths of ballet students, miners and cops intersect, or in “Expressing Yourself,” when the fantasies of Billy and his cross-dressing pal Michael explode into a zany chorus line of gigantic headless frocks — well, the whole thing soars unexpectedly into the realm of the fantastic.

Yet the performances, under Stephen Daldry’s seamless direction, always feel grounded and specific, right down to the littlest members of the ensemble.

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