Billy Elliot the Musical at the Orpheum
Here's the rub: Billy Elliot the story is about something small and personal: A young boy defies the expectations of his rough mining village to follow his dream of being a ballet dancer. Often this gets lost amid all the West End/Broadway glitz, which seems determined to jazz up moments that would be better served by dialing back the noise and letting the actors do their work.
So the touring musical, playing through early January at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, brings top-notch acting and production values, but the story underneath it all is frustratingly out of reach.
Set in the north of England in 1984, Billy Elliot takes place in a small village where coal mining is king. The miners' union has just voted to strike to fight against the then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's efforts to dismantle their way of life. Amidst this is young Billy, a 12-year-old who really doesn't like the boxing classes his tough-as-nails father sends him to. Then one week he is forced to stick around late and discovers a ballet class.
Billy loves the classes, and his teacher sees his rough but natural talent. He trains in secret and then defies his father's orders when found out. All the while, the strike drags on for months, fraying the finances and nerves of everyone in the village.
At home, there are issues on and below the surface. Billy's mother died when he was young, leaving his father to raise the family. The ever-shifting relationship between father and son is the real fuel for the show, and those moments are effective without being sentimental.
Some parts of the plot don't work as well. A subplot about Billy's crazy Gran (memory loss is so funny!) doesn't go anywhere, Billy's gay friend Michael's presence is even more grating (despite a good performance by the young actor), and his first-act "Expressing Yourself" not only brings the story to a halt but features some nightmare-inducing giant dancing dresses.
Oh, and there's the dead mom, who shows up from time to time to give Billy some painfully on-point advice from beyond the grave.
Despite these speed bumps, the show flies along on its strong energy and performances through Act One, ending with the show's highlight, Billy's "Angry Dance." Propelled by the raging score (provided by Elton John) and lyrics consisting of his angry screams, Billy lets his rage—at missing his chance to audition, at the strike, at his faltering family—out through his dancing.
Once the curtain opens on Act Two, six months have passed, and all that coiled rage has been buried inside once again. The show loses its momentum and never regains it fully.
Five actors share the Billy role, depending on the performance. For Friday's opening night, Michael Dameski commanded the stage whenever given a chance to dance. The rest of the cast is solid from top to bottom.
So yes, Billy Elliot the Musical is entertaining and sometimes thrilling, but often less is more—and for me that makes this more an opportunity lost than a victory achieved.
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