Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Billy Elliot


Book/Lyrics by Lee Hall, music by Elton John. Dir. Stephen Daldry, chor. Peter Darling. Imperial Theatre.

(Critic-O-Metered by Isaac Butler)

Critics—with a few notable holdouts—swoon for Billy Elliott, the tale of a working-class boy who discovers both a love and a gift for ballet. With the exception of The Wall St. Journal's Terry Teachout (who, despite his profession of not caring about the politics of a piece of theater, is clearly offended by the show's trashing of Margaret Thatcher), reviewers adore the choreography, are mixed-to-positive on Elton John's score, credit director Stephen Daldry with making the proceedings work, and are somewhat hesitant to admit the young boys playing Billy might be better dancers than actors. Even John Simon loved the thing. Those who demur think it's essentially sentimental schlock of average merit, and many critics who do like it still preferred the London production.

(Michael Kuchwara) An exceptional work that exemplifies what the best musicals are all about: collaboration. Everything comes together in this impressive, warmhearted adaptation of the 2000 British film about a North Country coal miner's young son who yearns to dance and join the Royal Ballet School in London.

DC Theatre Scene A
(Richard Seff) There is so much to admire in Stephen Daldry’s staging of this musicalization of the film of the same name, with book and lyrics by Lee Hall (who wrote the screenplay) and music by Elton John. The story remains the same as that of the movie, but it’s been expanded and much of its quiet emotion is explored now in music and dance. It’s difficult to know where to start tossing kudos, but I suppose it makes sense to start with Billy himself. There are three young actors who play him each week, as it’s as tough a role as “Hamlet” and “Oliver Twist” combined, and I understand that all three of Billy’s actors are excellent. But “my” Billy was Trent Kowalik, and if you want to know what a true stage star, aged 12, is - trot on up to the Imperial Theatre and seek him out. It’s not just talent he has for dancing (and I mean everything from ballet to tap to modern), but his acting instincts are amazing, and he knows even at this early stage of his career, the value in silence, in time-taking, in listening.

Backstage A+
(David Sheward) Count me as a big old Billy fan. What could easily have become a feel-good treacle fest—particularly with the king of pop ballads, Elton John, composing the music—turns out to be one of the smartest and most satisfying Broadway musicals in years...Tough, intelligent, exuberant, electric, politically savvy, and fun are all accurate adjectives for Billy Elliot. Long may he dance on Broadway and across the country.

(Matt Windman) Simply put, you cannot miss it.

The Journal News A
(Jaques Le Sourd) Wonder no more: Billy Elliot is the Broadway season's first big musical hit.

Philadelphia Inquirer A
(Howard Shapiro) Like the 2000 movie with the same director (Stephen Daldry), choreographer (Peter Darling) and writer (Lee Hall, who retooled the script for the stage and wrote lyrics to Elton John's infectious music), Billy Elliot's stage incarnation doesn't just move. It soars - up from the coal mines of northern England, out of the constant street violence between miners who strike and national riot police who strike back, past the poverty and isolation of a red-brick town that is its own intellectually gated community.

The New York Times A
(Ben Brantley) Mr. Daldry and company turn tripe into triumph by making us understand the depth of the appeal of its classic show-business fairy tale, not only to us but also to the people whose dreary daily existences touch on Billy's. The evidence of this appeal is abundant in Billy Elliot, most obviously in the motley ballet classes presided over by the wryly disparaging Mrs. Wilkinson and a Christmas frolic at the miners' hall where everybody dresses up as their favorite villainess, Margaret Thatcher.

(Barbara Hoffman) The best gift from Britain since Harry Potter...This is [Elton John's] best stage score yet, though given his lackluster Aida and the bloodless mess that was Lestat, that's not saying much. Here he's given us memorable music—by turns anthemic, folksy and rock-and-roll rousing—that serve Hall's lyrics well.

Bloomberg A
(John Simon) The best and biggest surprise is the way the cast, under Daldry's direction, never makes the slightest false step, balletic, histrionic or emotional.

TheaterMaina A
(David FInkle) The entire cast—including the shape-assorted miners and ballerinas—has been expertly drilled by Daldry, with the acerbic Gwynne (the sole holdover from the original London cast), the scene-stealing Shelley, Leah Hocking as the loving mum of Billy's memory, and the pint-sized Erin Whyland as Mrs. Wilkinson's precocious and plain-spoken daughter among those making the strongest impressions.

Variety A-
(David Rooney) High among the strengths of this big-hearted show is the success of director Stephen Daldry and writer-lyricist Lee Hall in infusing the story with gritty cultural specificity and an angry liberal political agenda while at the same time rendering it emotionally accessible to audiences regardless of their background or politics. Who would have guessed that a musical in which conservative economic policies deal a death blow to the working class could be such an uplifting experience?... Elton John's songs are more often serviceable than memorable, and the ballads are treacle, but there's a nice, brass-heavy Brit sound to the orchestrations that adds to the show's strong sense of place. Regardless of their quality as showtunes, almost all the significant numbers are elevated by Daldry's propulsive staging into buoyant setpieces.

Time Out NY A-
(David Cote) One of the most electric, passionate and exhilarating shows to land on Broadway in years...Elton John’s score is, let’s be honest, a dullish parade of midtempo ballads and soft rock, and Lee Hall’s book is superior to his merely adequate lyrics, but this production is emphatically more than the sum of its parts. Director Stephen Daldry...does wizardly work balancing the various dialectics that give the material its crackle of sublime storytelling: broad spectacle versus tight dramatic focus, collective sacrifice versus individual excellence, escapism versus social duty.

Newsday A-
(Linda Winer) Darling's impressive choreography seems to infuse everyone in the big cast with a personal story, even the police who, at the start, have a fidgety hand ballet suggesting their own vulnerability. In an important number, "Solidarity," the cops, the miners and the ballet girls fade in and out of one another's contrasting realities, with cinematic power. There is a Chicago takeoff for teeny ballerinas and even a dream-ballet, the white-swan adagio, for Billy and his older self, with levitation by Tchaikovsky and a couple of wires.

Hartford Courant A-
(Malcolm Johnson) The production is long, nearly three hours, but John and Lee sustain interest with a string of songs in many idioms, including the sentimental ballad for Leah Hocking's dead Mum, "Dear Billy." Jbara also has a kind of baritone folk song, "Deep Into the Ground," while Shelley shines in her memory of her husband, "We'd Go Dancing."

Time A-
(Richard Zoglin) In truth, the British still got a little better of the deal in this transatlantic transaction. With mostly American actors taking a stab at north England accents, the home scenes don't have the authenticity or grit they do in London. The dance-class ensemble includes a few too many mugging little girls trying out for Annie. The show is not quite as well sung as it was in London, and the Billy I saw (David Alvarez, one of three boys who are alternating in the role) turns out to be, unsurprisingly, a better dancer than actor. Still, Billy Elliot does almost everything a musical should do, and more. It's a diplomatic triumph.

New York Daily News A-
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Billy Elliot occasionally stubs its toeshoe—a too-cute chorus line of dancing dresses and, more egregiously, a coda that subverts the bittersweet tone the story has rightly built over nearly three hours. But even a few stumbles can't spoil a show that's so sweet and exhilarating that at times you feel like leaping. Best leave that sort of razzle-dazzle to the limber Alvarezes and Hannas of the world, who can do it—and shine.

Chicago Tribune A-
(Chris Jones) As in London, those sequences from the British choreographer Peter Darling make this show distinctive and impossible to resist. You find yourself recalling comparable moments of personal freedom in your own life, or, if you don't have any, wondering why you don't.

USA Today B+
(Elysa Gardner) Neither original screenwriter Lee Hall's libretto nor the lyrics he wrote to accompany Elton John's unapologetically sentimental score require us to hear every word. The characters are drawn in broad strokes, with good humor but little nuance; their function is more to serve a larger message than to relay compelling idiosyncrasies.

Entertainment Weekly B+
(Thom Geier) Billy Elliot is by no means perfect. Like the original London production, it is still too long (with a seemingly endless curtain call)...But the ideas that work here—and there are many—work magnificently, whether it's presenting the striking miners and the police as opposing choruses or the moving second-act pas de deux with Billy and his older...In such moments, the potential of Billy Elliot, both character and show, seems both boundless and fully realized. In tough economic times that seem eerily similar to 1980s Britain, in fact, it's easy to imagine projecting all of our recession-weary hopes onto the slender shoulders of a precociously gifted pre-teen boy.

The Record B+
(Robert Feldberg) With its solid, if familiar, plot line of a young boy simultaneously growing up and growing apart from his family, the show goes for it all—laughter, cheers and tears. (While succeeding in the first two, it falls short in the last department—maybe there are a few sighs—even as it resorts to the shameless device of having Billy visited, for encouragement, by the ghost of his dead mother.)

New Yorker B+
Fans of Lee Hall and Stephen Daldry’s 2000 movie...may notice that Daldry’s musical adaptation, with songs by Elton John, lacks a few of the film’s charms—nuanced characters, the memorable final scene, T. Rex. But it does have a satisfying combination of hardscrabble wit and populist brio that’s especially exciting to see on Broadway...The show ably demonstrates dance’s power to free the soul and inspire the crowd, and does so without an overabundance of schmalz.

Village Voice B-
(Michael Feingold) An oddly uneven work, full of beautiful and exhilarating moments, their energy dissipated by what looks like uncertainty of purpose: The creators don't always seem sure what story to tell, where to focus in telling it, or how best to use the enormous resources at their command. It adds up to a kind of musical-theater tasting menu: A little Disney, a little docudrama, a little heightened realism à la Brecht, a little music-hall rowdiness, a little old-fashioned showbiz, and even a little Piscator-style Expressionist political theater...The show's a mess, but it's a likable, good-hearted, overstuffed mess; you're more likely to go away feeling puzzled than feeling cheated by its unevenness.

TalkinBroadway C+
(Matthew Murray) The glory of his ever-improving pirouettes, so peacefully fluid against the angrily angular backdrop of underclass ugliness, ushers in a hush of beauty that heralds the beginning of a work less calculated and more naturally heartfelt. It doesn't last. Only during Billy's leaps, chasses, and arabesques, executed in fits of exasperation and exultation as he strives first to escape himself and later to become himself by auditioning for the Royal Ballet School, do the show's combating components unify.

The Los Angeles Times C-
(Charles McNulty) In New York, the innocence isn't just overshadowed by bells and whistles—it gets mugged by them. The poor motherless Elliot home doesn't stand a chance against all the bullying showmanship. But equally problematic is the way the cast never coalesces into a believable North England family suffering in the mid-1980s under Margaret Thatcher's union-busting rule.

The Wall St. Journal D
(Terry Teachout) Musicals, of course, don't have to be surprising to be good. What counts is craftsmanship, of which Billy Elliot has some, and emotional truth, of which it has none whatsoever. I can remember—barely—when Elton John was still a good songwriter, or at least capable of writing good songs...Sir Elton has long since turned into a pusher of faceless pop slop. As for Mr. Hall, his contribution to the show consists in the main of treacly doggerel...heavily sprinkled with four-letter words. That's Billy Elliot in a nutshell: It purports to show us a band of stalwart strikers who are fighting to the last to save their jobs, but turns almost immediately into sequin-spangled feel-good socialist kitsch.

AP A+ 14; Backstage A+ 14; AMNY A+ 14; DCTS A 13; The Journal News A 13; Philadelphia Inquirer A 13; NYTimes A 13; NYPost A 13; Bloomberg A 13; TheaterMania A 13; Newsday A- 12; Variety A- 12;Time Out NY A- 12; Hartford Courant A- 12; Time A- 12; NYDaily News A- 12; CHicago Tribune A- 12; New Yorker B+ 11; USA Today B+ 11; Entertainment Weekly B+ 11; The Record B+ 11; Village Voice B- 9; TalkingBroadway C+ 8; The Los Angeles Times C- 6; The Wall St. Journal D 4; TOTAL = 288 / 25 = 11.52 = B+

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