Theater Review: "Billy Elliot" At The Pantages
"Billy Elliot," which is based on the 2000 movie of the same name, follows the plight of the titular character (Kylend Hetherington, at this performance), a coal miner's son who skips boxing lessons in favor of ballet lessons with Mrs. Wilkinson (Leah Hocking). The young boy shows great potential, much to the initial dismay of his father (Rich Hebert) and brother, Tony (Cullen R. Titmas), both of whom are on strike from the mines to protest Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's policies. In true inspirational-story fashion, the town rallies around Billy and tries to help him gain entry to the Royal Ballet School.
It seems that most of the show's faults can be attributed to Lee Hall's book. There is little to no sense of continuity to the piecemeal first act, which is really only redeemed by the wonderful dancing exhibited therein. The second act improves considerably, as the events are clearly related to each other, and not just a series of vignettes. Additionally, the touring version of the show packs less of a punch than it did on Broadway. Perhaps this is due to the reduced staging for a variety of venues (it is a shame to the the Pantages' glorious proscenium reduced by about a quarter), but the show does not seem to live up to its potential to the extent it did in New York.
Working with child actors can pose a challenge, and a show like "Billy Elliot," which utilizes so many, is no exception. Unfortunately, their characterization tends to err on the side of caricature, rather than reality. It's a shame, as Hetherington has some wonderfully natural and real moments as Billy, but they are almost overshadowed by conspicuous direction at other points in the show.
As the title suggests, much rests upon the shoulders of the young man playing Billy, and Hetherington does a very good job, with strong singing, acting, and dancing—quite a feat for a fourteen-year-old! Also delightful was Cameron Clifford, as Billy's friend Michael, who tells Billy to "Express Yourself." The kid plays a great straight man and has good comedic timing.
"Billy Elliot" is, primarily, a dance show, and it is at its strongest in the big dance numbers. The male ensemble is comprised of incredible dancers, especially Maximilien A. Baud, who partners delightfully with Hetherington in a Swan Lake dream sequence in the second act. The show's choreography, originally by Peter Darling, is an interesting melange of ballet, jazz, tap, and contemporary. It doesn't always coalesce into a satisfying whole, though the fault may lie more in the dancing than the choreography, as upon a subsequent viewing, Trent Kowalik's performance of the Angry Dance at the 2009 Tony Awards is just as impactful as ever. Regardless, it is an interesting experience to watch, and when it works, it soars—both literally and figuratively.
It's an appropriate assessment of the show as a whole, actually. While there are some rough patches here and there, the show's most wonderful moments are almost sweet enough to overshadow those moments that don't quite work. Unfortunately, though, a slightly bitter aftertaste remains.
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