‘Billy Elliot The Musical” took home the major prizes of the season, including Outstanding New Broadway Musical given out by the Tony Awards, the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle. And the three boys who star as Billy jointly won the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical. “Billy Elliot” is undoubtedly one of the most thrilling and entertaining musicals ever to play on Broadway. I have withheld my review for what I felt was a very important reason. As there are three young men alternating in the title role, I thought it would be fair to see all three of them and see how they differ and excel. Although it has taken me since last November to find a time to see all three — David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik, and Kiril Kulish — it was well worth the wait and the experience.
This musical version that was based on the successful and popular 2000 film, “Billy Elliot,” was a huge hit when it opened in London three-and-one-half years ago. It finally crossed the Atlantic and landed on Broadway last November where it is now enjoying a well-earned, deserved success.
The story of an 11-year-old boy who is driven by a passion to dance in the face of a family and a community engaged in the harsher realities of a coal miners strike in Northern England in 1984 is striking in its adherence to the cultural terrain. The show also makes no bones about how it feels regarding the political policies of the Margaret Thatcher years. It is particularly stirring in its depiction of a young non-conformist who manages to not only survive but also triumph in the face of rigid conservative values in his own labor-intensive community. Forgive me if that sounds like something of a manifesto, but be assured, regardless of your pro or con political persuasion, you will be cheering at the resolve.
It is impossible to imagine the work that director Stephen Daldry did to tailor the role of Billy to accommodate three different personalities. He has done a masterful job of it. Although Daldry and lyricist Lee Hall collaborated as director and writer for the film, their stage version has been totally freed from the prescribed realities and limitations of the film. For the stage version, they provide time and space for a more freely and expressionistically envisioned world wherein fantastical dreams invade the grittier parts of the story.
Ian MacNeil’s settings (enhanced by Rick Fisher’s bold lighting) are a wonder of invention and make seamless but awesome transformations from the grimness of the town’s meeting hall, the dangerous streets where miners clash with the police, to places that expand Billy’s dreams and reveal his destiny.
It’s good to report that each Billy brings a special and endearing quality to a role that requires as much dramatic intensity in the acting as in the dancing. This is a musical that makes formidable demands upon the actor/dancer playing Billy. This is clear from the start of the show when Billy inadvertently finds himself smack in the middle of a dance class being run by a chain-smoking conspicuously uninspired Mrs. Wilkinson (Haydn Gwynn). Mrs. Wilkinson, however, rather quickly recognizes Billy’s interest as well as his instinctive gift for dance and helps him train and prepare for an audition to the Royal Ballet School.
You could say that his mop of dark curly hair and his Hispanic features set Alvarez most distinctly apart from the other boys. But this dancing dynamo whips about the stage dancing with a ferocity that is as impressive as his acting. Born to Cuban parents in 1994, Alvarez started ballet in his native Montreal where he won a full scholarship at the American Ballet Theater School’s Jacqueline Onassis School. His Billy was full of the fire of a young superstar.
Kulish is blonde and the tallest of the three. His grace and polish as a dancer is most notable in the ballet portions. A winner of the Youth America Grand Prix International World Ballet Competition for the past two consecutive years, he is also an accomplished concert pianist. Kulish sings well and is especially skillful with the comedy portions of the show as performed with either Frank Dolce or David Bologna (who alternate in the role of Billy’s best friend, Michael).
Kowalik is another phenomenon: He previously performed the role of Billy on London’s West End and is a winner of many national and regional dance titles, and five-time undefeated National Step Dancing Champion. Perhaps Kowalik looks the most at home in the show, but that’s not the reason we can see sparks fly when he dances.
Choreographer Peter Darling has certainly not gone easy on the boys when it comes to the technique and versatility the boys must deploy for assignments that embrace ballet, tap, acrobatic, and step dancing. The boys show off their stylistic individuality impressively in the “Angry Dance,” a dramatic highpoint in which Billy responds to the violence in the street around him by charging the cops standing behind their wall of Plexiglass shields. Another number that defines Billy is called “Electricity,” and each of the boys generated enough at their respective performances to prompt the audience to standing and cheering.
Not surprisingly, Billy’s widowed Dad (Gregory Jbara) and his brother Tony (Santino Fontana) are vigorously opposed to Billy pursuing a profession as suspect as dance. The musical makes no attempt to gloss over the polarizing events that will inevitably end the life of a town and the life-bread of its townspeople. The scene in which we see the miners descend into the pits is as vivid and stunning in its impact as is the ascent of Billy in a rapturously danced “Swan Lake” pas de deux (with his older self, danced magnificently by Stephen Hanna) in which he is sent soaring into the rafters. Jbara gives a brilliant performance as the tough and unyielding father. Fontana is equally memorable as Billy’s embittered and strike-committed brother. They eventually are reconciled with the fact that there is no future for Billy at home.
At home, Billy finds solace from his warm but slightly senile Grandma (Carole Shelley) who harbors memories of her deceased abusive husband as well as fonder memories of being in his arms on a dance-floor. Far from maudlin, Billy is also comforted by a letter written by his deceased Mum (Leah Hocking), who periodically appears to him in a vision.
On first hearing, Elton John’s songs seemed fine enough without being especially memorable. But as you might expect, three visits have distinguished them considerably. “The Stars Look Down” is a poignantly devastating anthem as sung by the miners as they commit themselves to their cause. It, and the “Once We Were Kings,” as also sung by the resigned but still proud miners near the end of the show, is a heart-breaker as it serves as a bookend for this musical about the end of an era and the beginning of another.
Comedy is plentiful enough in a show in which hard-edged Gwynn puts the corps of klutzy girls in the ballet class through their paces in “Shine,” a hilarious fans-galore production number. Even funnier is the scene in which Michael, a budding transvestite, coaxes Billy into a dress-up romp that segues into a fantasy “Expressing Yourself” with giant-sized dresses on hangers coming out of the wings to join the boys in a spree of delightful tap-dancing. So, which one is my favorite? I may have to go back three more times to answer that. ****
“Billy Elliot the Musical,” Imperial Theater, 249 West 45th Street. 212-239-6200.