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Friday, July 8, 2011

Billy Elliot at the Orpheum Theatre Delivers the Brassy Broadway Goods

Posted By on Fri, Jul 8, 2011 at 1:00 PM

J.P. Viernes, as Billy Elliot, does things we can't. - JOAN MARCUS
  • Joan Marcus
  • J.P. Viernes, as Billy Elliot, does things we can't.
Billy Elliot

Through September 17 at Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market (at Hyde), S.F. Tickets are $35-$200; visit www.shnsf.com.

When I first saw the film version of Billy Elliot back in 2000, I found it a bit treacly and unconvincing. I also found it irresistible. I've seen the movie many times since, and each time I'm aware of the same shortcomings -- but I keep watching anyway.

Set during the U.K. miners' strike of 1984 and 1985, Billy Elliot tells the story of an 11-year-old boy who, despite the resistance of his macho father, escapes the bleakness of day-to-day life through ballet lessons. Much uplift ensues. So much uplift, in fact, that Elton John saw fit to make the thing into a musical. His adaptation, with book and lyrics by Lee Hall, premiered in London's West End in 2005 and on Broadway in 2008.

The show has been a smash. And after seeing the touring production playing at the Orpheum through mid-September, you'll probably understand why.

The musical shares many of the film's faults -- in particular, a weakness for unmotivated changes of heart. (The character of Billy's father, played here with great sensitivity by Rich Hebert, is the worst offender along these lines.) But if you're a fan of musicals, you're probably apt to forgive a bit of sentimental excess here and there, since the whole idea of spontaneous song-and-dance tends to undermine any attempt at harsh realism.

This is a joyous production, and much of the joy derives from Peter Darling's stunning choreography. The cast is solid, too, with an especially memorable turn from Broadway legend Faith Prince as Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy's chain-smoking ballet coach. Granted, the show's second half doesn't quite deliver on the promise of the first; the narrative momentum simply doesn't hold up.

But at its best, Billy Elliot gives us the brassy Broadway goods: it's the rare musical that manages to convey the pure thrill of dance.


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Chris Jensen

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