It’s often surprising how easily sentiment can go to work on you. While I’m immune to dead-mom sentiment and dad-realizes-what-a-shit-he’s been sentiment, Billy Elliot: The Musical got me with its coal-miners’ strike. It took place in England in 1984, giving the odious Margaret Thatcher the opportunity to begin dismantling workers’ hard-won rights throughout the nation. Most of the West Virginia side of my family are miners; I’ve been down the pit and I’ve learned firsthand about the struggles they continue to wage in order to pursue a dangerous job.
My mother escaped via the Navy. Eleven-year-old Billy Elliot is offered a way out of a future in the mines through dance, with all of the attendant preconceptions that will color the attitudes of his father, brother and friends.
It’s a good premise for a musical, with such a firestorm of energy during the first act that you easily can tolerate Elton John’s sound-alike score—after all, his music was part of the soundtrack of the Thatcher era. But once the plot threads are tied up at the top of Act 2, that energy flags and the score’s repetitiousness is cruelly overshadowed when an excerpt of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake underscores Billy’s dream dance.
Choreographer Peter Darling and director Stephen Daldry created a breathtaking ensemble number early in the show to the song “Solidarity,” in which the striking miners, the opposing police and a classroom of ballet students interact in an otherworldly manner, using the potential of costume pieces and chairs to the fullest (chairs feature almost as individual characters throughout the show).
This sparkle is displayed again in “Born to Boogie,” a trio for Billy (the superb Drew Minard, who rotates the role with two others), his dance teacher (Janet Dickenson) and the surprisingly limber accompanist (Kilty Reidy). The second act gets off to an effectively satirical start with “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher,” bringing a good use of puppets into play, then slides into the maudlin with “Deep Into the Ground,” sung by Billy’s father (Rich Hebert, who is nevertheless effectively believable).
And it’s that tendency either to overbeckon the tear ducts (“Dear Billy”) or court the implausible for cheap applause (“Expressing Yourself”) that only leadens the show.
But the numbers that work well do so brilliantly, making shrewd use of an extremely talented and agile cast. And there are star-turn moments, such as Patti Perkins’ “We’d Go Dancing,” in which she (as Billy’s grandmother) reveals her own dance background and how it helped her to escape from her own difficult situation, as well as Billy’s first-act finisher “Angry Dance.”
Bill Congdon conducted an ensemble mixing a road band with local players to transparent effect. The only drawback was the amplification, which sounded impressively unobtrusive at the start but grew annoyingly louder.
There’s a moment when Billy’s uncertain future inspires the striking miners to chip in to help his cause. “I’m supporting the arts,” explains one of them, which prompted applause. The drawbacks I mention weren’t enough to dim my overall enjoyment of the piece, so I suspect that when it comes to the arts—especially on the rare occasions when miners are involved—I’m an old sentimentalist.