There is something irresistible about watching a child fulfill his dreams. Billy Elliot , as everyone knows, is the story of a poor boy from a small mining village in Northern England whose dream is to become a professional dancer. Against all odds, and with the unlikely help of a town full of jobless miners, Billy gets his shot at the big time, and in the process moistens the eyes of parents everywhere.
Billy Elliot The Musical pulls at the tear ducts in many more ways than the movie, however, because not only is the twelve-year-old actor who plays Billy fulfilling his character's destiny, he is also fulfilling his own real-life dream to become a dancer. By definition, no one can play Billy unless they pretty much are Billy—that is, an über-driven, hyper-focused, oh-so-talented kid for whom dance is everything. Consequently, each performance has a sort of built-in existential echo effect, as the actor playing Billy lives his own dream . . . by playing the lead role in a Broadway musical about a kid with a similar dream, sans the Actor's Equity contract.
There are five Billies working in rotation during the musical's run at The Orpheum, and each one is a rare and gifted phenom. As the show unfolds, and Billy's skills improve, it's impossible not admire the talent and artistry of these young actors, and it's equally impossible not to hear a voice in the back of your mind screaming, "And he's only twelve!" That was a beautiful battement , followed by a lovely fouetté en tournant , you might be thinking—then your brain will involuntarily blurt the exlamación du astonishment , "Not bad, for a twelve-year-old!"
Once the amazement wears off, however, you are free to enjoy the rest of the show—and trust me, there is plenty of show to enjoy. The story of Billy Elliot is an almost perfect vehicle for a musical, because the choreography is integral to the tale, not just grafted onto the narrative to eat time and fill the stage with eye candy. The most difficult challenge had to have been deciding how to make a year-long miner's strike come to life on a Broadway stage. But Billy Elliot solves this problem elegantly with more than a dozen miners who can belt out a song like "Solidarity" and mean it, and by employing some clever theatrics that dramatize the clash between the striking miners and the police.
However, the bulk of Billy's transformation from awkward misfit to town hero takes place in Mrs. Wilkinson's ballet studio. There, Billy learns the fundamentals of his craft from the cynical but sympathetic Mrs. Wilkinson (played by Faith Prince), and is simultaneously nurtured and prodded by her to embrace his gift. The show's humor comes from the other kids in town, including a school full of girl dance students and, most especially, Billy's friend Michael, played by Jacob Zelonky. Zelonky is so good and so funny that he all but steals the show from Billy (played on opening night by Michael Dameski), which is no trival feat. The kid is a comic genius—a little ham with a big future.
As you might expect, the dancing and choreography are outstanding, but Billy Elliot really works because there is such a deft balance between heartfelt storytelling and heart-stopping showmanship. Being an aspiring dancer in a town full of homophobic rubes isn't easy, and the contrast between the life Billy dreams for himself and the one he's living is a stark one. It could be starker, certainly, but singing miners can only be so menacing. In the end, this is a story with a familiar theme—"be true to yourself, kid, and have the courage to follow your dreams"—not a political diatribe, so a giant puppet of Margaret Thatcher is about as savage as it gets.
So go, be amazed, and bring the Kleenex. It's worth it, even if you end up crying just because your kid isn't quite as talented as the kid onstage. If it'll make you feel any better, I learned after the show that Michael Dameski isn't twelve, he's fifteen. Not bad for a fifteen-year-old! , I can now think as I weep myself to sleep knowing that my kid will never have to carry the burden of being so poised, so talented, and so accomplished at such a ridiculously young age.
Billy Elliot continues at The Orpheum through Jan. 9, hennepintheatretrust.org