June 20--The show: National tour of "Billy Elliot" at Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford.
What makes it special?: The tour of the London and Broadway hit was long in coming to the Bushnell, so long that the Broadway run has closed.
First impressions: The 2000 film of a poor coal miner's son living in mid-'80s Northern England who wants to be a ballet dancer makes great source material for a musical. After all, who hasn't felt the liberating call to dance or at least experience the power of art to lighten one's heavy heart?
The road production taps well into the show's emotional buttons -- and there are plenty of them: some sweet, some charming, some soggy in pathos. But who won't be rooting for the boy whose spirit -- and ours -- soars (quite literally at one point) when he puts on those dancing shoes.
Noah Parets played the title character in the performance I saw Tuesday night -- there are several boys who alternate in the lead -- and he was terrific, managing to pretty much carry the show solidly on his 13-year-old shoulders. (He also performs the role Friday night and the Sunday matinee. The alternate Billys are Drew Minard and Mitchell Tobin.)
Parets gets ample help with an overall good supporting cast and some fine choreography by Peter Darling. (The "Solidarity" number is a powerful merging of song, movement and story.) But Elton John's numbers otherwise seem at best serviceable or less, such as the throwaway "Born to Boogie" and the not-nearly-good-enough 11 o'clock number, "Electricity." The staging by Stephen Daldry (who directed the film as well) has an English music hall broadness and too often succumbs to cheap or corny effects. Nearly all of the Lee Hall's humor in the clunky script is made up of crude and rude remarks or crotch jokes.
Yes, I know these are working class blokes and their plight and language are rough and coarse and it's all rooted in a specific English low culture. But all of the mugging and milking of jokes would make the worst sitcom look Shakespearean in comparison. It's just tutu much, if you get my drift.
Uneven accents and a poor sound system don't help matters either.
But when the kid dances, all is forgiven. Almost.
What's it about?: These aren't happy times for striking workers in Margaret Thatcher's depressed union-busting England. (The late P.M. comes in for a musical thrashing.) But kids are resilient and find diversions. Billy tries his hand at boxing with his best buddy Michael, a brilliantly conceived, cross-dressing creation, delightfully played Tuesday night by Jake Kitchin. But boxing is not a sport that appeals to either plucky, sensitive lad. Things change when Billy stumbles into a dance class, and finds a way to passionately express himself.
His widower dad and older brother try to discourage such poofy-they-fear pursuits but with the help of a tough-talking dance teacher (Janet Dickinson), Billy secretly prepares to audition for the royal dance academy in London. It takes some doing but family and community eventually back Billy whose dancing dream gives the town something to cheer.
The performances?: Rich Herbert has some lovely moments as Billy's Dad and his emotional arc from stern father to patron of the arts is quite wonderful. Dickinson is splendid as Mrs. Wilkinson, the dance teacher, and never sentimentalizes the woman who understands her role in taking a talented boy to the next level. Cullen R.Titmas does well in the underwritten role of Billy's brother Tony. Maximilien A. Baud is stunning as Older Billy and the show's highlight is when Billy dances with his future ballet star self.
Who will like it?: Dance fans, especially those who love ballet. Union workers. Kids of a certain age.
Who won't?: Thatcherites.
For the kids?: Yes, but not too young because of the potty-mouth language.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Dance 10, book 3. Dynamic kid deftly pirouettes around sentimentality, bad taste and medicore songs.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: I respect the creators of the show for not compromising in adapting the story from film to stage. It could have switched the setting to a coal mining town in West Virginia or some fool change like that. Also it has a strong political point of view and some downbeat moments rarely seen in aspirational musicals. But its other flaws keep me from embracing it and jumping on the "Billy Elliot" bandwagon.
The basics: The show continues through Sunday, June 23. The running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets are $20 to $95, not including fees. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. at 6:30 p.m. Information at 860-987-5900 and http://www.bushnell.org.
Read my blog on theater, the arts and entertainment at http://www.courant.com/curtain. And be the first to know by following me on Twitter at http://www.Twitter.com/ShowRiz.
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