Friday, November 14, 2008

Billy Elliot Dances Way Into Critics' Hearts

Billy Elliot Dances Way Into Critics' Hearts

Last evening, Billy Elliot The Musical opened at Broadway's Imperial Theatre.

Directed by the same man who directed the 2000 film, Stephen Daldry, and with a book and lyrics written by the same man who wrote the original screenplay, Lee Hall, this tuner's music is by Sir Elton John.

David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish are alternating as Billy, while David Bologna and Frank Dolce alternate as Michael. The musical also stars Haydn Gwynne, Gregory Jbara, Carole Shelley and Santino Fontana.

Most critics have showered the show with praise. It's been ages since I've seen this type of swooning over a new tuner.

Declaring that "Broadway's long, dark, dry spell of big, smart, smash musicals is officially over," now that the "seriously thrilling" and "deeply lovable" Billy Elliot has opened, Newsday's Linda Winer heaps on the huzzahs all around: "The show is crawling -- not to mention tapping and leaping -- with dauntingly talented children, presented with a blissful lack of preciosity and lots of blazing intelligence and theatricality by director Stephen Daldry and choreographer Peter Darling.... On the basis of Tuesday's Billy, David Alvarez, the massive demands of this star role have not been overstated. Alvarez is terrific - with a grave-kid undercurrent, lots of unforced charm, finely sculpted long muscles and the ability to unspool ballet wizardry without losing the remarkable elegance of his line. His singing is simple and direct, with a musicality more important than show-biz salesmanship. About those songs. Elton John has written an ambitious, varied, altogether satisfying grown-up score."

Concluding by thanking "Maggie Thatcher, for giving us something to sing about," New York Post's Barbara Hoffman awards four out of four stars: "proving itself the best gift from Britain since 'Harry Potter.'... But unlike so many shows that plod from screen to stage, Billy Elliot: The Musical makes the leap from reheated adaptation to reimagined creation. For that we can thank not only director Stephen Daldry, writer Lee Hall and a wonderful cast -- but also Elton John, whose idea it was to make it a musical in the first place.... Whether it's ballet, modern or tap -- or, in one case, tap-dancing while jumping rope -- dance is the show's single best special effect."

Proclaiming that the tuner "really does have something for everyone, and that something is, gloriously, art," Bloomberg's John Simon is laudatory: "The story unfolds with drama and humor, exciting and tender moments. Expertly staged by Stephen Daldry, it is dazzlingly choreographed by Peter Darling in some breathtaking dance sequences of various genres, from classical ballet to contemporary forms.... There are mostly rousing but occasionally jolly Elton John songs, with simple but apposite lyrics by Lee Hall.... And then, amazingly, there is Billy.... I caught David Alvarez, a riveting prodigy: actor, singer, fabulous ballet and tap dancer (note his double tours) and spectacular acrobat. He combines skills few adults could match, and sustains them throughout a long and demanding evening."

Praising Billy Elliot as "that rare production -- one that brings all the elements together and creates a fresh emotional experience," Joe Dziemianowicz of New York's Daily News is also similarly enthusiastic: "The show's creative forces -- Stephen Daldry, Lee Hall and Peter Darling -- who repeat duties as director, writer and choreographer, and who are joined by composer Elton John -- are to be commended for bringing Billy to the theater with smarts, clarity (yes, Americans will 'get' the across-the-pond references, including the expletives), imagination and tender loving care.... Even more than the terrific 2000 movie, the musical amplifies Billy's place in his community.... David Alvarez, who was on at my performance, is a dazzling dancer, strong actor and capable singer. As his brassy ballet teacher in shocking pink (and purple) tights, Haydn Gwynne, who originated the role in London in 2005, is a sublime mix of bark, bite and big-heartedness."

Postulating that the "show both artfully anatomizes and brazenly exploits the most fundamental and enduring appeal of musicals themselves," The New York Times' Ben Brantley is surprisingly smitten: "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 performances, for the most part, are broader than they were in London, with more mugging and heart-tugging stickiness. But the two most essential portrayals -- that of Ms. Gwynne and Mr. Alvarez -- were spot-on the night I saw the show.... Billy Elliot never doubts that it’s the sobriety that endures in life. Which makes those intoxicating, fleet-footed flashes of art, where leaden bodies fly and discord turns into harmony, all the more to be cherished."

Asking, "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?" Variety's David Rooney offers praise: "American audiences would have no trouble connecting with the universal sentiment of this bittersweet dual celebration of community and individuality.... The basic plot skeleton of an underdog rescued from adversity by the purity of his artistic pursuit is a familiar one, but it's given integrity here by the rich, melancholy textures of Hall's cultural and political backdrop.... 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."

Citing the show's "unapologetically sentimental score" and "characters ... drawn in broad strokes ... but little nuance," USA Today's Elysa Gardner still offers up a three-star review: "Billy Elliot shines brightest when its younger cast members are center stage, particularly when they're on their toes. A few production numbers lean too heavily on cute shtick -- there are dancing dresses and an enormous Thatcher puppet that may scare the kids -- but Peter Darling's choreography makes the raw, restless exuberance of youth accessible to all. In one sequence, Billy imagines and shadows an older version of himself, and both leap across the stage as the rapturous strains of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake swell around them. And for a few moments -- no matter where you're from -- it's impossible to not be transported by this kid's amazing grace."

So with Wall Street in continued meltdown, could Billy Elliot - The Musical be exactly the right salve at the right time? We'll find out as our next stop is the box office.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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