The musical stage adaptation of a fondly remembered 2000 film of the same name has made its way to Tampa’s Straz Center.
“Billy Elliot: The Musical,” a procurer of 10 Tony awards, sticks close to the plot of the film but gleefully embellishes it with over-the-top musical numbers composed by Elton John that perfectly bring the character’s inner theatrical longings into the story’s dour gray setting.
Eleven-year-old Billy’s journey towards his dream of becoming a ballet dancer amidst the early 1980s coal miners’ strike in Britain is the perfect backdrop for a musical. It’s a classic against-all-odds crowd pleaser that triumphs in lifting up spirits and moving the audience without ever falling too heavily into clich.
The show follows Billy as he goes against his stone-faced, hyper-macho father and brother, by sneaking into ballet lessons with his chain-smoking battle axe of a dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson. Broadway fixture Faith Prince portrays Wilkinson beautifully in the travelling production now showing here in Tampa.
The show never tries to gloss over the harsh reality of Billy’s poverty-stricken life during the miners’ strike. His father and brother, less than enthusiastic about his love of the suspiciously feminine art of ballet, are never demonized. They are instead covered with plenty of sympathy, wanting the best for Billy yet believing that ballet seems too far off from their life on the dole.
In the end, “Billy Elliot” is a story of acceptance. Billy’s best friend, Michael, who has a penchant for wearing his sister’s dresses, is given a show stopping number entitled “Expressing Yourself,” which perfectly sums up the show’s mission statement of doing whatever makes you feel the most alive, no matter what anyone else has to say about it.
Scenes involving Billy’s memories of his dead mother and those between him and his father provide the show with plenty of heart. You root for Billy to succeed and will become emotionally invested in almost every character.
The stage musical fully embraces the more gritty sensibilities of the original movie. Every actor speaks in a heavy workman Northern English accent and many an F-bomb is dropped. The comparison between the lowbrow crassness of Billy’s support system and the high-class frills of ballet provides the butt of many jokes.
The song and dance numbers are ingeniously plotted throughout the story. The number entitled “Solidarity” is a standout, combining a clash between police and protesters and a ballet lesson.
Another number bringing the audience to heavy applause was the hilarious “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher,” involving burly protestors breaking into song while a huge cartoonish puppet of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher looms overhead.
These references to a very particular and turbulent time in Britain, along with the heavy accents, may confuse some audience members, but the charm and transcendent heart of the show will allow most to avoid getting too wrapped up or lost in the particulars.
The set design is subtle and pleasing to the eye, perfectly complimenting the larger musical numbers and the smaller, more drama-driven segments.
Admirers of the original film and anyone who loves the theatre will find plenty to love in “Billy Elliot,” and it provides the perfect escape from everyday life.
“Billy Elliot” is currently playing at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Tampa through Feb. 22.