SWEET MANIPULATION Sir Elton John has provided a surprisingly brawny score for a surprisingly satisfying sentimental night of theater.
Matthew Bourne meets Bertolt Brecht in Billy Elliot the Musical (at the Opera House through August 19). Of course Brecht, with his beloved alienation effect, would cringe to pen a show as emotionally manipulative as this. But for my part, if I'm going to be emotionally manipulated, I prefer that it be done as skillfully as it is by the Olivier- and Tony-winning musical based on the 2000 British film. The celluloid Billy Elliot centers on a talented adolescent allowed to dance his way out of a dying coal-mining town in the northeast of England, circa 1985. The genius of Billy Elliot the Musical is that it does not so much juxtapose the struggle of a boy born to bourrée with documentation of the National Union of Mineworkers strike that was painfully broken by the Thatcher government as weave the two together in an abrasive, thrilling braid. In the fiercely rousing "Solidarity," for example, striking miners and cops in riot gear snake their way among an organized chaos of working class "ballet girls" who echo the men's union anthem like so many frenzied parrots. Meanwhile, amid all the shouting, smoke, and banging of a barricade of chairs, Billy concentrates on perfecting his newly learned pirouette.
One key to the success of Billy Elliot the Musical is that the film's creative team of director Stephen Daldry, screenwriter Lee Hall, and choreographer Peter Darling remain on board but have re-imagined the material rather than replicate it. And when necessary, they have found theatrical means to echo the best bits. Rather than flash forward 14 years to show us an Adonis of an adult Billy dancing in Matthew Bourne'sSwan Lake, they sandwich in an interlude in which gangly if graceful young Billy and his exquisitely muscular older self dance a pas de deux, the man lifting the boy as if he were a ballerina before attaching him to a harness by which he is able to soar above a sea of dry-ice smoke, thus illustrating both the liberating and the transfixing powers of dance.
The unlikely addition to the team, not only as a composer but also apparently as a catalyst of the musical, is pop-music royal Sir Elton John, who surprises with a brawnier score than you might expect. Billy Elliot may be a Simba figure en pointe, but there is less of The Lion King here than of political anthem, folk ballad, British Music Hall, even Les Misérables. The show does, however, boast a diminutive Elton John figure in Billy's cross-dressing pal, Michael (a winning Cameron Clifford on opening night), who, in the flamboyant "Expressing Yourself," urges Billy to embrace his inner artist even if it means showboating before a rainbow-hued curtain of tinsel with a surreally attired chorus crowned with pocket-book heads. Another big production number leaves no doubt where the musical's politics — stronger than those of the film — lie. An over-the-top Yuletide "panto" that bleeds into a lovely folk dirge, "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher" is presided over by a mean-faced Macy's Parade float of an Iron Lady that would make even David Cameron duck and cover.