Theater Review: 'Billy Elliot the Musical' at the Pantages Theatre
In this era of easily accessed online opinions, it's hard to settle into a theater seat with any confidence. There are those voices in our heads and on our smartphones: “Some critics called the score unmemorable and the stagecraft over the top. What if I don’t enjoy myself?”
Careworn, highly informed theatergoer: If you go to see “Billy Elliot the Musical,” which has arrived at last in Los Angeles, at the Pantages Theatre, you will enjoy yourself.
It’s true that among the raves “Billy” has provoked some complaints in London, then on Broadway, and then across the U.S.: about Elton John’s score (“It’s a mediocre score, and that’s putting in kindly,” a man beside me sniffed), about Lee Hall’s arty book and Peter Darling’s adventurous choreography; about the thick, growly Northern England accent, in which hunger is pronounced “hooon-gah” and ballet “bally.”
But if 10 Tony Awards, including best musical of 2009, don’t assuage your fears, then let me, because I went through a lot of anxiety for nothing. This irresistible show is an expertly crafted, well-oiled pleasure machine designed to make you feel exactly the way you want to feel at a musical: awed, tearful, warm of heart, slightly sheepish about loving it so much and grateful that everybody around you is cheering just as hard.
Eleven-year-old Billy, a motherless boy in Durham, England during the miners strike of 1984, stumbles into a ballet class taught by the hard-bitten, soft-hearted, chain-smoking Mrs. Wilkerson and is, to his own puzzlement, hooked. Not even the violent objections of his father and older brother, frustrated man’s men, can keep him from dancing.
In this version, Billy’s road to the Royal Ballet School is paved with many delights for the audience. Leah Hocking is dryly delicious as Mrs. Wilkinson, who sports an astonishing wardrobe of ’80s-style dance wear. Patti Perkins gives a lovely performance as Billy’s salty, addled grandmother who in “We’d Go Dancing” reminisces about brief respites in her miserable marriage.
Billy’s best friend Michael, played alternately by Cameron Clifford and Jacob Zelonky (I saw Clifford, who took the show and almost didn't give it back), is an implausibly self-confident cross-dresser who encourages Billy to pursue his dreams in the multicolored showstopper “Expressing Yourself.” You’ll learn about politics and class warfare in Thatcherite England (a very different perspective from the one portrayed in “The Iron Lady”) and your spirits will soar with the dazzling choreography. (True, the soundtrack isn’t likely to replace “Wicked” in your car, and you may need a few hours to recover from the combined effect of the jarring clangs that resound throughout the strike scenes.)
Not surprisingly, the soul of the show is Billy — the role transcends the many actors who have played it. Four actors alternate as Billy in this production. I saw 14-year-old Ty Forhan, whose angelic face and golden hair, along with his proficient, ebullient dancing, enhance the impression that Billy’s talent is a shining miracle in a grim world. I happened to be seated on the aisle when he walked past in the final scene, and I saw a tear on his cheek. I suspect he'll always be Billy Elliot for me. But I guess I won't be sure until I've seen the other three.
-- Margaret Gray
[For the record: And earlier version of this review misspelled the character Mrs. Wilkinson.]
“Billy Elliot the Musical.” Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays. 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 13. (800) 982-2727 or BroadwayLA.org. Running time: 3 hours.
Photo: Ty Forhan (Billy), Leah Hocking (Mrs. Wilkinson), Samantha Blaire Cutler (Debbie) and the cast of "Billy Elliot the Musical." Credit: Kyle Froman