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By Jenn McKee
Posted: Sept. 5, 2012 at 11:53 p.m.; updated Sept. 7 2012 at 5:13 p.m.
As I watched the opening night performance of the touring version of "Billy Elliot," now at the Fisher Theater, I thought more than once of yet another British film that made a splash when translated into a Broadway musical: "The Full Monty."
For the two films that are the basis for both shows are set in economically depressed, dead-end, working class British towns; both tackle issues of masculinity and gender with insight and humor; and in both, the act of dancing provides a kind of therapeutic, life-affirming escape hatch from the trap that seems to be closing in on the characters.
"Billy" is set at the time of the British National Union of Mineworkers strike of 1984, which ended with then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's conservative government breaking the union after a year-long standoff. Young Billy (Kylend Hetherington on opening night), whose mother died years before, lives with his gruff miner father (Rich Hebert), older brother Tony (Cullen R. Titmas), and feisty grandmother (Patti Perkins). When Billy lingers at his boxing lesson, he finds himself among a group of spastic girls in tutus, which turns out to be Mrs. Wilkinson's (Sasha Ely-Judkins) ballet class. Billy finds himself drawn to dancing, pursuing his passion in secret until Mrs. Wilkinson urges him to audition for the Royal Ballet School.
At three hours, "Billy" isn't a longer-than-usual musical, but it feels a bit longer than it needs to be, particularly as the second act grows more unabashedly earnest and lingers to repeatedly showcase Billy's dancing talent. And while Elton John's score (with book writer Lee Hall's lyrics) offers several stirring, strong tunes – I'll have the "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher" in my head for days to come – some (like "Born to Boogie") are less-than-satisfying.
But these are minor complaints about what is generally a likable and charming show. Michigan native Hetherington – who rotates in the role of Billy with two other young actors for different performances – solidly anchored Tuesday opening night performance. With impressive acting and singing skills, and dancing abilities on best display during the show's ballet numbers, Hetherington ably carried the show on his young, narrow shoulders.
The production's main standout, however, is Ely-Judkins, who charismatically conveys that there's a tender, beating heart within Mrs. Wilkinson's hardened, cynical exterior – not to mention the fact that her vocals are a knockout.
And Peter Darling's groundbreaking choreography astounds in the first act particularly, as scenes of Wilkinson's dance class are mashed into those depicting the increasing tensions surrounding the miners' strike. The contrast that this odd marriage paints is both vivid and narratively useful, in that the audience sees, in an artful, intense display, the forces that are acting on Billy.
Ian MacNail's versatile, clever set design manages to evoke lots of locales, conveying the town's tough economic circumstances (along with costumes by Nicky Gillibrand), and the tone of the show allows characters to casually, matter-of-factly shove set pieces on and off stage like it was just another chore they perform while carrying on personal conversations.
And in times like these, when so many are out of work, "Billy Elliot" hits some unfortunately all-too-familiar notes while also gently breaking your heart. Indeed, the show's final moment, while pointing to a more hopeful future for Billy, is so tinged with melancholy that the curtain call acts as an emotional buoy, thus ensuring the crowd will leave the theater cheering and smiling.
But it's a testament to the show's darker tones that this deliberate shift to lightness isn't all that patrons will remember.
SHOW DETAILS: "Billy Elliot the Musical" continues at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit, Tuesday-Sunday through Sept. 16. Tickets: $39-89. For information: 313-872-1000 or www.BroadwayinDetroit.com.
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