Thursday, August 21, 2014
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Review 'Billy Elliot the Musical'

A great national tour cast in one of the great musicals of the new century. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews from the Academy of Music.

Review 'Billy Elliot the Musical'

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Lex Ishimoto played the opening night Billy -- here, angry at the world -- in the national tour of Billy Elliot at the Academy of Music. Photo by Michael Brosilow

By Howard Shapiro

Who among us cannot embrace the electrifying Billy Elliot the Musical? Maybe someone who believes success is infrequent and mostly relegated to Rocky movies, or who doesn’t value the part a teacher can play in molding a young life, or is jaded or can’t grasp the liberating nature of dancing. Maybe someone who just doesn’t get musicals.

If you know folks fitting any of those criteria, don’t argue, just keep them away from the Academy of Music, where the national tour of Billy Elliot the Musical has settled in, robustly, for a run of nearly two weeks. For the rest of us, the option is clear: Billy Elliot is a great musical of the new century.

Because of the same values that shaped the 2000 film before the musical — pride of community and family, faith in education, plus standing up for yourself and pursuing something you love against all odds — Billy Elliot, I suspect, will be revived and performed into perpetuity. Or at least as long as dance and gymnastic schools train prodigies able to play 11-year-old boys, appear in nearly every scene of a two-hour-plus run and bring down the house.

That’s apparently no problem at the moment; four boys will rotate in the title role during the run here: Ty Forhan, Kylend Hetherington, J. P. Viernes and Lex Ishimoto. At Thursday night’s opening, I saw Ishimoto, a compact dynamo. I suspect, but cannot say, that the others are just as impressive; I’ve never heard of a bad Billy, and the show’s had a succession of youngsters on Broadway — ending its run there this January after three years and 10 Tonys.

Stephen Daldry, who directed the film, also stages the show, rewritten tightly by its screenwriter Lee Hall, who set lyrics to Elton John’s infectious music. The story unfolds against the miserable 1984 miners strike that erupted after Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pressed to crush the miners union. (She succeeded.) Billy Elliot soars from those mines, into the street violence between striking miners and riot police, past the poverty and isolation of a distant British town that is its own intellectually gated community.

Young Billy, like every other coalfield kid, has no dream he can appropriate, so he’s given one — by Mrs. Wilkinson (a fine turn by Leah Hocking), who teaches dance to a gaggle of rag-tag girls at the union social hall. Billy’s there for boxing lessons, and his gloves don’t seem to work. His legs do, though, and before long he’s sneaking sessions with all the young tutus.

The show is not without its challenges: It contains a nasty Margaret Thatcher number that’s too over the top to be credible. But because of state law protecting kid performers, the Philly stop loses Billy Elliot’s sole embarrassing feature — a dream sequence in which a dancing Billy flies suspended across the stage, a cheesy  insertion from a creative team with momentary insanity.

The sequence works so much better grounded, as does all of Peter Darling’s choreography for ballet, tap, show dancing, street moves, gymnastics, clog and jump rope. Consider the cast that pulls this off like a walk in the park. They include Rich Hebert as Billy’s dad, Cullen R. Titmas as his older brother, the excellent Patti Perkins as his grandma, the rotating Ben Cook and Jacob Zelonky as his sexually conflicted buddy, and Kat Hennessey as his deceased mom. Plus other adults — and a bang-up bunch of kids, already fulfilling their own stage dreams.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727,, or #philastage on Twitter.



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About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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