The byline contains "Durham" but it is in County Durham, across the pond, during the increasingly receding 1980s, that Billy Elliot takes place. It was a time when the nearly joined-at-the-hips leaders, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, settled strikes by summarily firing those who would dare challenge their working conditions. Set against a protracted coal miners' strike is the personal story of a boy who is awakened to his love of dancing and his battles with his family to pursue his dream. Originating as a film in 2000, Billy Elliot, the musical, premiered in Londons West End in 2005, and since then it has amassed nearly every possible award and has already reached legendary status. The Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) is the starting point for a new national tour, and if there ever was any doubt that DPAC has arrived as one of the great arts centers in the United States, that was thoroughly dispelled with its presentation of Billy Elliot.
Arriving at DPAC, you were immediately struck by the board that listed the entire cast for the show: there were about forty names. But the big name, and the central character, is Billy Elliot. It is an interesting arrangement that there are actually five separate Billys dividing up the shows for this run. Whether it's the exhausting nature of the role or just a chance to give five boys this opportunity – or even child labor laws – it's going to take some extraordinary talent to equal Giuseppe Bausilio's powerhouse performance. Whether it was dancing, singing with a pure, still-unchanged soprano voice, or heartfelt dramatic acting, Bausilio, from Bern, Switzerland, had no discernible faults in the lead.
Billy lives with his father, older brother, and grandmother, and misses terribly his mother who died several years ago. He is given money by his father for boxing lessons, but he mistakenly gets involved with a girls' ballet class. The dance instructor, played with great Broadway flair by Faith Prince, recognizes his potential, encourages him, and eventually arranges for an audition got him with the Royal School of Ballet in London. The friction this causes with his family, the townspeople, and his friends is the gist of the story.
One of the greatest attributes of this musical – and there is so very many – is the way that it combines mammoth and seemingly impossible large production numbers with small, intimate scenes of a very poignant nature. Probably one of the big draws in getting this produced in the first place was the fact that Elton John would write the music, especially after the huge success he had with The Lion King. His best moments seemed to come in the quieter songs, particularly the lyrical tearjerker "Dear Billy," where Billy reads/sings a letter to his dead Mum and she does the same. On the other end is the hilarious second act opener "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher" ("because you’re one day closer to your death"), where the entire company skewers the Iron Lady; it ends with a giant – and I mean really giant – Thatcher roaming the stage.
Not to diminish any of the scenes, since there was not one bad moment in the entire musical, some of the highlights includes a number with enormous dancing dresses, an actual pas de deux from Swan Lake, and a raucous number with Billy and his cross-dressing friend Michael, quite enthusiastically played by Jacob Zelonky. Rich Hebert, as Billy's father, was compelling and conflicted as he wavered from the stern, traditional working class man who'd rather die than watch his son become a ballet dancer to the supportive, caring father who also deeply loved and missed his wife. The ensemble had some remarkable scenes, especially a very frightening and powerful one where they portray police breaking up picket lines. They also were a spectacular choral ensemble throughout.
If you are like me, when you saw the movie – as excellent as it was – it was very often quite difficult to understand the thick working class British dialect. Every character in the musical speaks and sings with a very accurate and authentic accent, but is articulated so cleanly that every word is clearly understood.
Believe the hype. Billy Elliot may be as perfect a musical theater experience as you will ever encounter. The story also resonates with our times: people out of work, distrust of the government, young people being somewhat different and getting chastised for it. But beyond this, you also get extravaganzas beyond your imagination, many very funny moments, beautiful sets, and not a dead moment for nearly three hours. Check out our calendar and see the DPAC site to buy your tickets – yes, now!