The new Broadway musical “Billy Elliot” has been hyped over the moon. The real story: The show is, yes, truly impressive, but something just a bit less than the “best new musical in years.”
Based on the indie Brit movie of the same name, it follows tween Billy, living in a small North England town convulsed by the historic British miners’ strike of the 1980s. Our hero stays after a boxing lesson, finding himself caught in the middle of a somewhat chaotic ballet class. Drawn in by the blowsy yet charismatic teacher, Billy slowly realizes he might have a real future as a dancer, while his home town falls apart around him.
It’s been often said that this is Elton John’s best score for the theatre, and that’s true enough. Though there’s nothing here as transcendent as “The Circle of Life” from “The Lion King,” Sir John and bookwriter/lyricist Lee Hall have crafted multidimensional songs that evoke working class British culture in all of its brutality—and sentimentality, and soul.
Hall and director Stephen Daldry are particularly adept at exploring the intersections between class, culture and gender identity, particularly though Billy’s friend Michael, a precocious, crossdressing gay boy. Their number together, “Expressing Yourself,” borders on the surreal but ends up being giddy fun.
So, all good things. Still, the show feels a bit like a massive machine that only intermittently connects with the yearning ache that should be at the center of Billy’s story. When those connections happen—mostly, naturally, in the dance numbers—“Billy Elliot” is everything its fanatics claim, but those moments don’t come quite often enough for my taste.