Thursday, May 19, 2011

Further Afield Reviews: "Billy Elliot: The Musical"

Giuseppe Bausilio in "Billy Eliot" (Photo courtesy of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts)

“Billy Elliot”
Until June 5 at the Buell Theater
1101 13th St., Denver
For ticket information, log on to

Three and a half stars out of four

There’s no escaping the influence of the source material on “Billy Elliot: The Musical.”
Lee Hall’s 2005 musical tracks the course of his 2000 film closely. Even with the added lush score by Sir Elton John and the more in-depth choreography, the show’s heart remains the story of an aspiring 11-year-old ballet dancer, a budding artist beset by the challenges of society’s stereotypes.
For all the similarities, however, the basic plot seems to pack more of a punch on the stage.
This stage adaption succeeds where most other musicals drawn from films fail: It uses its source material as a springboard for a deeper artistic statement. Where shows like “9 to 5” and “Shrek” feel like lesser versions of the originals, the stage version of “Billy Elliot” has the sense of an evolution, a more refined take on the original concept.

Part of the success comes from the show’s basic structure and its main themes. The story of a young ballet dancer finding his artistic identity against the backdrop of a fictional industrial town seems tailor-made for the stage, and the touring company finds every scrap of that potential.
With a nuanced, moving score and a series of compelling dance routines (the choreography during “We’d Go Dancing” is a highlight of the show), the story is given a grander framework, and its message becomes more straightforward. The boy who dreams of performing pirouettes on stage seems more affecting and moving in the framework of a musical, and the rewards of his struggles become more immediate.
Indeed, the importance of pursuing one’s dreams no matter the social stigma is all the more imperative as we see graceful ballet moves realized onstage.
A corps of four young actors takes turns playing the title character. Giuseppe Bausilio of Bern Switzerland took the reins as Billy on opening night, and filled the demands of the role with ease. The heavy northern English accent came off fluently, and the young actor’s ballet technique was unassailable.
Bausilio found apt support in a stellar supporting cast, including Colorado native Susie McMonagle as Billy’s sassy and spunky teacher Mrs. Wilkinson and Rich Hebert as Billy’s working class father. Joel Blum also offers an affecting performance as George, Billy’s young friend whose own struggles with identity align with the larger theme of the piece.
The strong sense of atmosphere also adds to the overall effect of the musical. The sets evoke the pitted buildings of a fictional 1980s coal-mining town; performances from actors like Patti Perkins as Billy’s grandmother capture the sense of working class malaise in the England of the 1980s.
All together, the effect is transporting. The combination of performance, music and setting make for the best kind of interpretation, one that realizes the potential of its source material and carries it to new heights.

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