Against all odds, eleven-year-old Billy Elliot is auditioning for the Royal Ballet School in London. This in itself is a kind of triumph, because Billy has little going for him. His mother has died; his coal-miner father and brother are on strike; money is scarce. In the rural Northern England town where Billy lives, there is little support for a boy who wants to wear a tutu. In the 2000 film Billy Elliot, Billy first startles the Royal Ballet judges with his unique dancing style, a spastic eruption from a child who doesn't fully understand what he's doing. Then as he is about to leave the audition, one of the judges asks, almost as an afterthought, "What does it feel like when you're dancing?"
The question throws him. Billy has never thought about what he feels. "Dunno," he mumbles, "it sorta feels good." Then he reaches into himself and cobbles a brief, halting reply about feeling like birds flying and electricity.
In the much-acclaimed 2005 stage adaptation, which is now on view at the Fox Theatre, this sequence of events is reversed. As the show's title trumpets, this is Billy Elliot The Musical, and in musicals, certain conventions are adhered to. So Billy is asked about his dancing first, which leads him to reply in song. "I can't really explain it," he sings, "I haven't got the words." But of course he has, and he expounds with eloquence for several minutes, leaping from note to note. "Electricity" might be the most accessible song in an otherwise unmemorable score by Elton John. Billy's paean to the mystery of the creative process crescendos in a dance of soaring pirouettes. Viewers love it, because they've been treated to a rising line of lyrics and dance. But what works for the musical is at direct odds with what was so extraordinary in the film.
One of the most dismaying things about this musical is that although its principal adaptors — director Stephen Daldry, author Lee Hall and choreographer Peter Darling — fulfilled these same tasks on the film, onstage the creators have taken unhappy liberties that erode the story's intent. The movie, for instance, focuses on a family coming together to confront adversity. But onstage the family unit is barely established. And the pivotal relationship between Billy and Mrs. Wilkinson, the gruff dance instructor who first kindles his love of dance, is diminished by the intrusion of a clownish new character. Mr. Braithwaite, the ballet-class pianist, feels like a discard from an early draft of The Full Monty. His inclusion in "Born to Boogie" warps the number's primary purpose, which is to allow the viewer to see student and teacher bonding. But then, it's hard to believe that any of this choreography has been staged by the same man who shaped the dances in the movie. Onscreen Billy's movement feels spontaneous; Darling's choreography onstage feels studied and self-conscious.
Nor are my concerns limited to the journey Billy Elliot took from screen to stage; I also wonder about the show's journey from London to St. Louis. I find it hard to imagine that the seemingly hacked-off, truncated set on the Fox stage bears much in common with the original scenic design. (Are the London and Broadway actors pulling and pushing toilet stalls on and offstage?) I also would be surprised if in London Billy's sexually ambivalent young friend Michael has been directed to brazenly mug his way through the finale of the song, "Expressing Yourself."
Despite these and numerous other reservations, it should be noted that for six triumphant years now this musical has been a megahit around the world. Apparently enough of the film's original message about people deserving to forge lives for themselves despite their circumstances has filtered through to touch and exalt audiences. But I would suggest that if the production currently on view at the Fox had opened in London in 2005, Billy Elliot The Musical would now be a distant memory. Much to my surprise, the evening was a profound disappointment.
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