Billy Elliot, the entertaining and heartfelt musical currently playing at the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines, will win you over with heart. The cast, especially the impressive roster of young performers, is fantastic and will make you want to pursue your long held dream of being a dancer, or firefighter, or marine biologist.
Billy Elliot, based on the film of the same name, tells the story of a boy in Northern England pursuing his newly discovered passion for ballet at the same time that a strike by the union miners leaves his town devastated. So it is that Billy Elliot is a story of contrast. The contrast not only of the delicacy of ballet and the harshness of coal mining, underscored throughout with ballerinas and miners dancing alongside one another, but also of Billy’s opportunity and his father’s lack there of. Billy’s father recalls paying his union dues at fifteen, essentially signing away any dreams he had in order to make a living in the mines. Billy, on the other hand, is given a golden opportunity to pursue his dream.
Of course Billy faces opposition from nearly all of his friends and family, mainly because of the stereotype that comes along with being a male ballet dancer. But his friend Michael, who does not care if Billy likes ballet, articulates the meaning of the entire show with the playful number “Expressing Yourself”. The song says, “What the hell is wrong with expressing yourself? If you want to be a dancer, dance. If you want to be a miner, mine.” Michael and Billy know, as only kids seem to freely admit, that there is nothing wrong with being who you are. That single song perfectly sums up the sentiment of the show and is what you will be thinking about after the curtain call.
While it is hard to go wrong with a message like that, it would not be nearly as convincing were it not for the strength of the cast. Because of the demands of the title role, the production utilizes three young boys for the role of Billy. At the performance I attended, Zach Manske played Billy. Manske is a powerful dancer, in both the ballet and tap styles, and though his singing is a touch weak he handles the requirements of the role very well. Susan Haefner as Billy’s dance instructor and Rich Hebert as Billy’s father wonderfully portray the contrasting attitudes of the adults in Billy’s life. His instructor supports him wholeheartedly and it is his father’s support that Billy desperately wants to win. Cameron Clifford, as Billy’s sidekick Michael, steals the show with his excellent sense of comedic timing and tap skills in the aforementioned “Expressing Yourself”. The entire ensemble makes the choreography appear effortless, clearly no easy task since you can see the bulging muscles on young and old alike.
The clever lighting and set design supports the creation of Billy’s world. The main set pieces are only a few feet taller than the actors. A minor detail? Not in this case because the set gives way to an endlessly tall brick wall that produces the feeling of being underground in the darkness of the mines rather than simply the despair resulting from the strike. During Billy’s extended ballet numbers, the main set pieces are moved off and the stage area grows, underscoring the expansion of Billy’s world made possible by ballet. Near the conclusion, as the miners who supported him head back down to the mines, the lights on the miners’ hats become stage lights for Billy as he heads off to make his dream come true.
The marquee name tied to Billy Elliot is Elton John. This show is a repeat trip down the Great White Way as John previously wrote music for Aida and The Lion King. He is largely successful in creating a mood that fits each scene and character. He wisely wrote a score that is big when it needs to be but also allows it to be an undercurrent to allow the dancing to be showcased. The cleverly dispersed up-tempo numbers prop up the show when the story hits the occasional slow spot, of which there are a few, resulting mainly from crafting a mining strike as the backstory for a musical comedy.