Billy Elliot the Musical opened in London in 2005, but it didn't cross the pond until 2008, and the first national tour company has visited only a few large North American cities. The second touring company based on the Tony-winning Broadway version (which is still running) arrived in Tempe last week.
It's a rare chance for Valley audiences to catch a splendid musical early in the game and with its original, breathtaking, misleadingly simple designs and choreography reproduced almost to the letter.
The current economy has done some swell things to art, even though financial hardship has curtailed the activity of artists and audiences. Someone might easily have been tempted to add spectacle to Elliot, had piles of cash been lying around, and then we might not ever have been able to see this example of what the human spirit can create and share with the help of age-old dreams, wicked talent, and prosaic materials (and, no mistake, still a whopping pile of cash).
In fact, this production feels, to me, like an analog version of Avatar -- I now understand those people who became depressed because the real world isn't full of blue, skinny, peaceful people who ride flying animals and live in harmony with nature. I sort of wish I could return to watching Billy Elliot the Musical for at least a little while each day.
Even the ugliness and setbacks in the history-based part of the storyline, which follows the 1984-85 U.K. miners' strike, are bursting with human dignity and distilled grace. The spare, iconic visuals of the show's set, and the human bodies that inhabit it, coming and going like forces of nature, draw pictures that linger and resonate.
Though the lyrics of the musical numbers aren't always entirely decipherable, especially by American-English-accustomed ears, the good news is that they're largely relatively uncomplicated as well, and this, too, fits organically with the subject matter. The diversity of musical styles employed by Sir Elton John's compositions includes several songs that call to mind hymns of protest -- anthems made for rousing group renditions by working people.
John has stated in interviews that he was moved to make Billy Elliot into a musical immediately upon seeing the 2000 British film about a boy whose serendipitous introduction to ballet opens up his soul and transports him forward from disappointment and loss, giving his faltering community some hope as well. What's really lovely and gratifying is that much of John's score takes us back to the crashing rock virtuosity of his '70s and '80s work, when he was living hard, trying to be married to women, and otherwise lacking successful outlets for his own repression and rage.
The later personal serenity that produced works like The Lion King does not take supremacy here, and Peter Darling's adult corps of mostly male dancers is a fluid behemoth of expressive faces and bodies that supports each space, each song, each character in mythic yet solid detail. They appear like a flock of birds and depart like smoke; they alternately sway and hold fast like the girders of a massive bridge. (And they depict individual human beings as well, when called upon.)
Another group of actor/dancers, the girls in the seedy ballet class that Billy joins, is another volatile collection of antithetical powers -- small, youthful, tulle-wrapped, and utterly female, they're also profane, clumsy, earthbound, and each as unique and imperfect as a worn-out shoe. When they meet the working-class police officers and striking miners in ensemble, it's microhistory and macrohistory, playing out oblivious to one another even as they touch and merge.
As if all this weren't enough to make one weary of reality, we have Faith Prince playing ballet instructor Mrs. Wilkinson on this tour. Prince, who won a Tony for the 1992 Guys and Dolls revival, is a Cherished Broadway Diva (helping make this quite the season to catch those great ladies of the stage locally), and she's having one hell of a good time here. (You might recognize her adorable round, middle-aged face from Spin City, where she played a recurring role, as well as from other TV appearances in recent years.)
Billy Elliot the Musical continues through Sunday, May 8, at ASU Gammage, 1200 South Forest Avenue in Tempe. To order tickets, $20 to $150, click here or call 1-800-982-2787.
One of my favorite scenes in the show begins with the moment pictured above, when Billy's slightly demented grandmother gets her big production number, "We'd Go Dancing." Though I admit I love it largely for personal reasons (for example, it's a showstopper that can feature an old crippled lady), I also love it for the biggest reason I love Billy Elliot: It gives a powerful voice and weight to the stories and dreams of the marginalized members of our tribe -- not just because "they" deserve it, but because their journey strengthens and ennobles everyone.