BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL LIVE! (A Review)
Stephen Daldry opens BILLY ELLIOT (2000) with the young Billy turning on the tun table and jumping carelessly on his bed. Smiling at full close-up, and with T-Rex’s Cosmic Dancer playing at the background, one already knows that this is going to be the story of a boy and his bouncing battle against gravity. Or a system, for that matter.
BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL LIVE! (2014) opens with a somewhat different scenario. It starts with a collage of 1947 footages during the nationalisation of coal mining in the UK. The curtain rises to a group of men (and women), mostly miners (and their wives), singing The Stars Look Down as they prepare for the historical UK Miner’s Stike of ’84. In its first three minutes, you already know what the musical is going to focus on. In its first five minutes, you know that this is going to be two and half hours of shouting, swearing, and swagging.
Whatever happened to that simple focus to establish the central character, I do not know.
12-year-old Billy Elliot is motherless. His father, Jackie, and older brother, Tony, are both coal miners who have immersed so valiantly into the strike. They live with Grandma, who is mostly the only person Billy can relate to. During the weekends, Jackie – despite not having enough money to spare, sends off Billy to the county gym for his boxing classes. For fifty pence per session, Billy gets a training of what is expected of him. One day, before leaving his class, a group of young girls on tutus enters the shaded court for their afternoon ballet classes with Mrs. Wilkinson. Billy glances. Billy observes. Billy joins.
It was done with careful screen direction. Director Stephen Daldry delicately touches on the lives of the people around Billy while we wander around the fictional town of Everington during that monumental strike in 1984. Despite the occasional swearing and violence, we see a revolution that is painfully understandable. Through Hall’s measured direction, we capture the mood of an era where self-pride was the main thing, however insufficient and knowingly self-destructive.
Most of all, what makes Billy Elliot one great feel-good movie is how it connects deeply into our psyches. It is a story about how our dreams only become real when we believe, and when we start to convince the people around us to believe, as well. It has the most basic of themes, yet it magically touches us and emotionally reminds us of our pasts. The movie is a refrain to what we will be – a continuing saga of fantasies, failures and fulfillments. Just like Billy on a bed – jumping, trying to defy gravity for the want of a dream. It also reminds us of parental love and how magical that love can be. How parents are willing to sacrifice themselves and swallow prides that are bigger than them, just so us, children, can fly to catch that dream.
Now, let’s talk about the adaptation.
When Elton John re-created Billy’s story to a musical in 2005, it garnered countless awards and recognition in the world of stage. The adaptation continued to run in London, the US, and Canada to universal acclaim. In 2010, it even had its first non-English language production which premiered in Seoul, with a young Korean playing the coveted role of Billy.
Much can be said of the talent of its lead. Elliot Hanna as the central character is a total performer. He re-creates Billy on stage and gives the character a new face and a new form. In him, we see a more passionate Billy. He dances like a professional, and executes almost-perfect pirouettes. He has the soul of an actor worthy of an Olivier, a protege ready to face bigger audiences and bow at their applause. But Hanna is at his best in the more sentimental scenes. I particularly like the part when he lets Mrs. Wilkinson (Ruthie Henshall) read her mother’s letter (Mum’s Letter) in preparation for a dance routine. In the scene, Billy’s mom enters the stage to sing with him and Mrs. Wilkinson. Here, Hanna poignantly shows Billy’s deep longing for a mother. His misty-eyed nuances crawl over the screen and onto the stage, overpowering the lyrics and Elton John’s music. Here is a Billy who exhibits a complex core we hadn’t seen before. It’s a phenomenon onstage that is worth more than a second look.
The supporting actors are scary, yet colourful. Henshall as Sandra Wilkinson is unexpectedly jolly, connected and engaged. At some point, one may think that she may pass as Billy’s second mum. I just get a bit worried whenever she puffs half a cigarette after a total cardio-vascular performance. No wonder she gets tired that easily. But that’s her lungs. Deka Walmsley as Jackie Elliot is superb. He is the same Daddy Elliot that we know, and he enchants the audience the same way Gary Lewis enthralls us in his performance of the original role. Like Lewis in the film, Walmsley’s best scenes are those that examine his emotional dilemmas; how his heart chooses his love for his sons over everything else. Chris Grahamson is the love-you-hate-you Tony Elliot. His presence fills the stage, and his looks are undeniably priceless. He slowly matures onstage, and the audience loves him for that. Worthy to mention is Ann Emery‘s performance of Grandma. Her energy covers most of her scenes with gusto. Hall, who also wrote the story for the stage adaptation, gives the role a deeper backstory, bringing Billy’s Grandma somehow closer to the audience.
The problem lies, however, in its execution. It exaggerates a simple plot and borders to almost being contrived. The music, though done with good intentions, stretches the plot to an unbearable pace, making one wonder if it is all worth it. Most of the dialogues maintain the same feel of the movie. The swearing and shouting never seem to stop. Though it’s understandable that the excessive use of swear words throughout the story establishes a carefree culture of the working class, the stage adaptation fails miserably in justifying such conviction. It was all an empty-headed quack; a frail attempt to fill between the lines.
Musical-Michael (Zach Atkinson), Billy’s best friend and confidant, is much more flamboyant. While on the other hand, the film-Michael has a deeper backstory and a more complicated personal dilemma. Much can even be said about his quiet love. His final shot in the film, after Billy kisses him goodbye, is a cinematic moment where, at one point or the other, we see ourselves. This shift from the original character, for the purposes of can-can entertainment, dismisses the beauty of his graceful silence in the film.
Further, the Revolution in the film is just a background juxtaposed to Billy’s ballet dreams. It intensifies his passion and clearly presents an ironic stance on civility and disorder. However, the adaptation tries to balance Billy’s journey and the Miner’s Strike. Though noble, it demagnifies the score of its central character. It lessens Billy’s goal as it levels with the unclear stance on a revolution that is already too passionate to a fault. As a result, its original simplicity turns bitterly over-complicated, confused and clouded.
Billy Elliot the Musical Live! revolves around the same familiar plot. It attempts to forge the same deep emotional journey of the film that made millions cry. It’s triumphant at times. Somewhat memorable, even. But at some point, it gives off a shallower exposition. It may have big production numbers, well executed pirouettes, and dazzling choreographies, but it misses the heart of the original. Had it not been for the cast’s breathtaking talent and Director Stephen Daldry’s ambitious attempt to re-create a feel-good classic, this stage adaptation would have been amiss.
2.5 Stars out of 5.
Oh, and by the way. Merry Christmas, dear Jellicle Readers!