REVIEW: Billy Elliot (Broadway in Chicago)

‘Billy Elliot’ shines

 

Emily Skinner, Cesar Corrales and Cast

 
Broadway in Chicago presents
 
Billy Elliot: The Musical
 
Book and lyrics by Lee Hall, music by Elton John
Directed by Stephen Daldry
At the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre
Open run (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

After four Laurence Olivier Awards, ten Tony Awards and ten Drama Desk Awards, you don’t need me to tell you that Billy Elliot: The Musical is worth seeing. Time Magazine also named it the "Best musical of the decade," an assessment I Tommy Batchelor as Billydon’t agree with —  my vote goes to Urinetown — but I will say Billy Elliot has everything a good musical ought to have: Fine music, outstanding choreography and a heartwarming, if clichéd, story full of triumphs and pathos.

Having opened in London in 2005 and on Broadway in 2008, the acclaimed musical has finally come to Chicago, where a stellar cast does it full justice.

Based on Lee Hall’s screenplay for the 2000 film, the plot is one we’ve seen many times before — a talented youth, dancing to his own drummer, beats the odds and makes doubters accept him on his own terms.

In this case, it’s 11-year-old Billy Elliot, son of a British miner, amid the devastating 1984 Coal War in which labor lost its fight against Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government, destroying the miners’ union and all but ending coal mining in the U.K. Billy’s mother is dead; his grandmother is senile; his dad and older brother, Tony, are on strike, along with most of the men in their town; money is short and tempers are flaring. Sent to boxing class, Billy accidentally stumbles into a girls’ ballet lesson and discovers a love and talent for dancing — outraging the men in his life.

It’s a rollercoaster of a story, full of contrasts, at turns funny and sad, raucous and refined, exultant and despondent. Politics, class consciousness, the role of the arts vs. sports, sexual identity all come together, sometimes clashingly. If the bitter defeat of the strike seems an odd match for the bright jubilation of Billy’s triumph, well … it’s a musical.

Peter Darling’s dazzling choreography makes the most of the juxtapositions, as in the brilliantly effective sequences of warring police and angry strikers interspersed with little girls in tutus.

Giuseppe Bausilio and Samuel Pergande J.P. Viernes as Billy
Tommy Batchelor and Ballet Girls Miners Association

Performed by a first-rate orchestra, led by Colin Welford, Elton John’s score, with lyrics by Hall, also brings us some startling contrasts. It runs the gamut from cheerful music-hall ditties to rousing anthems to sad ballads, from joyous to silly to angry, sometimes even in the same song. In an excellent example, one of the few solos, "We’d Go Dancing," Billy’s grandmother — a splendid performance by Cynthia Darlow — recalls her unhappy married life.

On the silly side, we get "Expressing Yourself," a strange sequence in which Billy and his transvestite friend, Michael (played alternately by Keean Johnson and Gabriel Rush), don women’s clothes and then dance with giant headless dresses.

Then there’s the pure joy of "Electricity," Billy’s paean to dancing.

A rotating cast of four boys plays Billy. On opening night, 13-year-old Cesar Corrales showed dazzling talent as a dancer and actor. A breathtaking pas de deux with his older self (onetime Joffrey dancer Samuel Pergande) deservedly drew a standing ovation on opening night.

We also see excellent moves from Emily Skinner as Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy’s pushy ballet teacher, and Blake Hammond as Mr. Braithwaite, her grotty accompanist.

No one in this ensemble puts a foot wrong.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

This musical contains adult language some parents may consider unsuitable for children.

Billy's Under Theatre Lights

 


 

Note: After opening night, you probably won’t have to deal with all the celebrity gawkers and TV crews blocking the way into the theater — BIC really needs to learn crowd control — but if there’s one major drawback to a show like this, it’s that it attracts audiences who don’t know how to behave in a theater. The man next to me sat munching odorous popcorn from a rattling paper bag, as if he were at the movies, and all around me people were illicitly snapping photos and shooting videos, not to mention texting on their brightly lit cell phones.

 

Meet the Chicago cast

 

Billy Elliot

Tommy Batchelor
Giuseppe Bausilio
Cesar Corrales
John Peter Viernes
view bios

 

Mrs. Wilkinson

Emily Skinner
view bio

Dad

Armand Schultz
view bio

       

Grandma

Cynthia Darlow
view bio

Tony

Patrick Mulvey
view bio

       

Michael

Keean Johnson
Gabriel Rush
view bios

Billy’s Older Self

Samuel Pergande
view bio

       

George

Jim Ortlieb
view bio

Mum

Susie McMonagle
view bio

       

Mr. Braithwaite

Blake Hammond
view bio

Debbie

Maria Connelly
view bio

       

Ensemble

Billy Elliot Ensemble
view bio

   

Creative Team

 

  • 6 Responses

    1. I just wanted to say that Billy Elliot was awesome! Scotty Zacher took me to see it and it was phenomenal. Even though I was in a room filled with successful people, my eyes and attention never wandered away from the musical. The story was great but it was the actors and dancers that really made it come alive. When the characters would get into an argument you could really feel the tension settle in the air. You were litteraly holding your breath to see what happened next. The sad parts made you want to bawl along with the characters because that’s just how real it felt, like it was happening to a real person at that exact moment. It was a great once in a life time experience I got to have and I’m really happy that Mr. Zacher let me have it.

      • Hey Destinee – thanks for the great compliments! It was wonderful taking you to the show and sharing it with you. And I agree with you regarding the production – well worth going to. don’t miss out!

        Scotty Zacher

    2. […] as you can tell, opening night of Billy Elliot was a lot of fun and a big success (see our review here – ★★★½).  Take a […]

    3. […] Broadway Playhouse-thru Dec 19 Pinkalicious ★★★½Emerald City – thru Dec 31 Billy Elliot the Musical ★★★½ Oriental Theatre – thru Jan 15 Carmen ★★★½ Lyric Opera – thru […]

    4. Definitely a great show, I think Destinee Cambium got it right.

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