The musical “Billy Elliot” has opened to rave reviews on Broadway with Ben Brantley in the New York Times calling it a “seductive, smashingly realized” production perfect for today’s hard times. No surprise here. Back in 2005 when the show opened in London, I wrote that it was the most irresistible show in ages that would run and run.
The Daily Telegraph’s venerable drama critic Charles Spencer went so far as to declare: “This is not a time to beat about the bush. ‘Billy Elliot’ strikes me as the greatest British musical I have ever seen.”
Spencer writes about the show’s first night on Broadway in the Daily Telegraph, which also has a diary of the the production’s American development by the original film’s screenwriter Lee Hall, who wrote the book and lyrics.
Here’s my 2005 Hollywood Reporter review of the show when it opened at London’s Victoria Palace Theatre, where it continues to play to packed houses:
By Ray Bennett
Take a clever little film with a universal story, add melodies by a master tunesmith and then find the most brilliant boys and girls who can sing and dance up a storm and you have “Billy Elliot: The Musical,” the most irresistible show in ages.
Packaged by the film company Working Title and using the creative talent from the 2000 movie, including screenwriter Lee Hall, choreographer Peter Darling and director Stephen Daldry, the show also boasts music by Elton John.
With a cast seemingly drawn from the collieries of England’s County Durham and a group of youngsters who exhilarate in extraordinarily well-crafted scenes, the show is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.
Three lads have been cast in the title role, and they rotate performances along with the other children in the large cast. James Lomas (who alternates with George Maguire and Liam Mower) proves entirely captivating as the boy whose interest in becoming a dancer is entirely at odds with the tough mining community in which he lives.
Following the story of the film, his family and neighbors mock Billy, not least because mining is the local tradition but also because this is 1984 and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is waging war against the miners’ union.
The period is convincingly evoked in Ian MacNeil’s sumptuous production design that includes video screens and large moving sets. Hall’s book is sturdy, and his lyrics move the story along smartly. John’s melodies, too, while entirely agreeable, are designed to serve the production rather than aiming to become pop hits.
As Billy is secretly tutored by local dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (Haydn Gwynne) and is encouraged to apply to the Royal Ballet School, the harsh existence of the striking miners is never far from sight.
Sequences involving choruses of miners fighting riot police add enormous power to a fairly simple story of a boy who wants to dance. The village scenes also convey the invaluable sense of community that existed in mining communities, which actually gives Billy the grit to pursue his dream.
Director Daldry has put together a sterling cast of grown-ups, including Tim Healy as Billy’s gruff dad and Joe Caffrey as his embittered brother Tony. Ann Emery, as Billy’s grandma, also does a splendid turn singing a lively lament for a life wasted with the wrong man.
In the end, it’s the youngsters who make the show such a success. They are all good, and Lomas is simply brilliant as Billy, while Ashley Lloyd is funny and affecting as his gay friend Michael.
“Billy Elliot” will run and run for as long as there are talented boys to fill their extraordinary dancing shoes onstage.
BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL
Presented by Working Title and Old Vic Prods. in association with Tiger Aspect
Music: Elton John
Book and lyrics: Lee Hall
Director: Stephen Daldry
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Jon Finn, Sally Greene
Executive producers: David Furnish, Angela Morrison, Colin Ingram
Choreographer: Peter Darling
Set designer: Ian MacNeil
Costumes: Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting: Rick Fisher
Sound: Paul Arditti
Billy: James Lomas, George Maguire, Liam Mower
Mrs. Wilkinson: Haydn Gwynne
Dad: Tim Healy
Tony: Joe Caffrey
Grandma: Ann Emery
George: Trevor Fox
Mr. Braithwaite: Steve Elias
Dead mum: Stephanie Putson
Billy’s older self: Isaac James
Michael: Brad Kavanagh, Ashley Lloyd, Ryan Longbottom
Debbie: Brooke Havana Bailey, Emma Hudson, Lucy Stephenson