The story of Billy Elliot is deeply appealing: During the 1980s, as Maggie Thatcher wars with the powerful coal-mining union as part of her campaign to destroy British labor, an eleven-year-old miner's son stumbles into a ballet class and discovers an unlikely love of dance. Naturally, this appalls his tough brother and widowed father, but he struggles on. Ballet becomes a metaphor for transcendence and personal freedom. And although their cause is hopeless and their community doomed, the boy's passion to some small extent changes those around him, elicits an odd tenderness from these work- and poverty-hardened men. The 2000 movie, directed by Stephen Daldry, was a little sentimental, but that was tolerable: If you're going to be sentimental about something, far better to idealize real working people — as British culture still tends sometimes to do — than burble on endlessly about victim politics, the flag and the nobility of various U.S. military interventions.
But the film's approach to ballet didn't ring true, and Billy Elliot the Musical, now here in a touring production, feels even more dishonest, in the same way it feels dishonest when someone who doesn't really like Shakespeare directs one of his plays and, rather than exploring the text, obscures it with all kinds of bits and bobs and glitzy irrelevant notions to keep both himself and the audience amused. If you decide to use ballet as a fulcrum for action — and Giuseppe Bausilio, who played Billy on the night I saw the Denver Center Attractions production (he alternates with four other boys), can certainly dance — then you need to give the audience some sense of what's transcendent about the art form. Through a long evening that features every Broadway dance cliché in the book, along with a group of giant, headless, leaping costumes right out of a Disney production, the only number that really communicates the joy of dance is "Born to Boogie," in which young Billy capers with his ballet teacher and her laconic pianist comes unexpectedly forward to reveal a few choice moves of his own; the single scene that comes close to expressing the beauty of ballet is a duet danced by young Billy and his adult self to the music of Swan Lake.
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But most of the choreography is cheesy. The script is more disjointed and sentimental even than that of the movie — as well as a lot, lot longer. And the insipid, ponderously obvious Elton John score doesn't help. You can tell Billy is frustrated and angry at the end of act one — the number is helpfully titled "Angry Dance" — because the lighting turns deep red, the music thumps insistently (yes, this is one of those shows that communicates emotion by getting very, very loud), and the poor kid starts banging, lunging and jumping spastically all over the place. It's mildly touching the first time Billy sings a letter from his dead mother, despite the Hallmark card lyrics ("In everything you do, always be yourself"), to both her ghost and his dance teacher. But why does Ghost Mum need to return to say goodbye as Billy leaves for London? Dead parents are portable. It must be so we can have a reprise and just a little longer to contemplate the song's utter vapidity. To the creators' credit, the destruction of the coal-mining industry is sympathetically shown, and one or two of the miners' songs are stirring — but none of this is allowed to interfere with the jarringly out-of-sync feel-good ending, in which every character leaps wildly about the stage for the longest, most manipulative curtain call I've experienced in a decade of manipulative curtain calls.
Between the Buell's technical limitations (which somehow the producers of The Light in the Piazza and South Pacific managed to overcome) and the script's shortcomings, it's hard to tell how good the acting is. There's some strength in the major roles, but the accents are maddening, and the performances in a couple of smaller parts unforgivably cartoonish.
Billy Elliot the Musical
Presented by Denver Center Attractions through June 5, Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
"Was it as good as the first two times you saw it?" one young woman asked another as we were all leaving the auditorium. "Oh, yes," her friend replied, eyes shining. "As good as New York. I love it more every time I see it."
De gustibus...well, you know the rest.