Review: 'Billy Elliot' at the Murat

November 14, 2012
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“Billy Elliot"  tells the story of a kid trying to artistically transcend the limitations that seem to be imposed by his surroundings. And, interestingly, the show faces those same struggles.

When “Billy Elliot” soars—and it does every time the title character finds that he can communicate better through dancing than words—the show comes alive. When it focuses redundantly and for too long on Billy’s environment (as it does in the too-long set-up) and when it offers condescending schtick that would be better suited for “Rock of Ages,” it falters.
Billy Elliot 2

In case you missed the film the play is based on, the story concerns a young boy whose town is caught up in the British coal miners’ strike of 1984. In the midst of the tumult, Billy falls in with a seen-better-days dance teacher and finds he has the talent—and the drive—to transcend his surroundings.

My thoughts on seeing the tour at the Murat (where it plays through Nov. 18) aren’t dramatically different then they were when I saw the show in Chicago. A boy who wants to dance may seem like ideal subject for a musical. But dancing miners and cops come across as wildly out of place padding in a show so anchored in reality. They undermine Billy’s specialness in an effort to provide enough musical numbers.

For the most part, the show creatively works around that seeming contradiction by using the ensemble in abstract ways. They accent, for instance, the memory song of Billy’s grandma (whose number provides the first sign of life in the show) and present the strike-breaking opposition in Billy’s intense “Angry Dance.” And a future balletic Billy is just the right touch in a stunning “Swan Lake” duo dance.

But “Billy” sometimes falters is when it doesn’t trust the truth of its characters. A sweet scene with Billy’s cross-dressing pal doesn’t need to resort to a fantasy dance with dresses on parade. And a second act opener, set during a holiday pageant, undermines the reality of the strikers’ struggle: Shouldn’t the miners have spent money on, oh, food instead of a massive Margaret Thatcher puppet? And what’s with the cheap-laugh anachronistic dance moves early on?

The music—by Elton John with lyrics by the film’s screenwriter, Lee Hall—doesn’t have that “gotta listen again” quality that turns a score into a classic independent of the show itself. The exception is “Electricity,” a beautiful song that seems to come directly from Billy’s heart and brain.

All caveats aside, I can’t say enough about Noah Parets, who played Billy on opening night (multiple kids rotate in the part). He may not be as graceful as others who have taken on the brutally difficult role, but he’s got the acting chops, never letting us forget his working class core. In hindsight, his most impressive work comes early in the show, while trying to keep up with the girls in his first dance class. Once we see what he is capable of later in the show, his ability to convincingly play that early awkwardness, frustration and drive becomes even more impressive. I believed him, even when I didn’t believe the show.

Your thoughts?

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  • Billy Blah
    I admit I haven't seen the show here in Indy and I likely wont. I saw it in NYC just after Beef and Boards alum, Cara Oates, left the show to take a role in Mary Poppins. Your criticism of the dresses on parade and Maggie Thatcher numbers are dead on! Frankly, the dress number is a big reason I don't plan to see it here in Indy. It's too over the top and tries too hard for laughs that it misses the opportunity to capture the more touching elements of their friendship. With the exception of Electricity, the music doesn't play well outside of the context of the show. Though I did find the "Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher" tune replaying in my head, much to my annoyance - more like "It's a Small World After All" getting stuck. The real highlight of the show is the Angry Dance and the Swan Lake numbers. Excellent dancing and worth seeing once just for that alone, but I think I'll skip the repeat performance and hit West Side Story at ISO instead.
  • You missed it.
    Billy Elliot The Musical is a play with music. The plot is very dark and depressing and the genius of the four creators is they used the song, dance and comedy to keep the audience for almost three hours. People looking to be entertained by a sing-song musical will miss the fact that the music is secondary to the plots and themes in this complex show. It is the best show that you will ever see, but you must follow the dialog(Geordi) and learn about this almost civil war in 1984 England. Go see the show again.
    • better info. about show
      Check Memphis for show info. before attending http://www.orpheum-memphis.com/connect_with_us/broadway-buzz
    • Indy production let down
      I actually like the show and the music. Yes, I agree with the over-the-top "clothes" dance, but I think the outside world meshed with Billy's world is very clever and makes the audience understand that both can (and d0) happen in real life. Sometimes when there is tragedy in a family, community, country, sometimes there is beauty and hope that can be found. My issue was with this particular production. I saw it in Chicago and was blown away with the strength of the lead, the voices and the staging. The choreography and unfortunately, most of the performances in the Indy production just weren't comparable to the quality I saw in Chicago. I was disappointed. Sorry!

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