Solidarity was in the air Tuesday, as two English Billys arrived in Madison: political folk-rocker Billy Bragg and Billy Elliot: The Musical. While it was hard to pass up one for the other (I first saw Bragg on his 1988 tour for Workers Playtime, an album that still sounds brilliant), I opted for the long-awaited musical in Overture Hall.
Billy Elliot was originally slated to run last fall, and the crowd on opening night clearly felt it was worth the wait. On the whole, I'd concur. While certainly not flawless, Billy Elliot -- like Bragg's songs at their best -- brims with heart while grounding itself in life's harsher realities.
Fans of the terrific 2000 film on which the musical is based will be relieved to find that the show hasn't watered down aspects relating to the 1984-85 U.K. miners' strike. That historical specificity is what gives Billy's story its poignancy and sharpness. It avoids being just another sappy "kid with big dreams" tale and instead says something genuine about pursuing dance in a situation that, for numerous reasons, makes that choice seem all but impossible. As a motherless, working-class boy whose father and older brother, both miners, face violent clashes with riot police and the gutting of their livelihoods, Billy confronts tremendous obstacles.
While the film is more ballet-centric, the musical energetically mixes dance styles, spending as much, if not more, time on tap than ballet. More contemporary and acrobatic movement also plays a part. The role of Billy is shared among several boys on this national tour and, on opening night, young Canadian Ty Forhan impressed with his physical prowess. Billy's "Angry Dance," a bombastic tap number that closes Act I, and a ballet scene in which he pairs with his adult self (graceful, athletic Maximilien Baud) were particularly mesmerizing.
Forhan's singing is not quite as strong as his dancing, and his British accent wobbled at times. But when Forhan is in full-on tap mode, all is forgiven.
The rest of the ensemble is quite strong, particularly Rich Hebert as Billy's gruff, macho dad and Janet Dickinson, a terrific singer and dancer, as Mrs. Wilkinson, the village dance teacher who gives Billy his introduction to movement.
Cameron Clifford as Michael, Billy's cross-dressing young friend, is a comedic highlight. While the Michael role is not played for laughs in the film (on the contrary, you worry about how this out-of-step lad will be treated in the hypermasculine culture surrounding him), it provides some good humor in the musical -- not because Michael sometimes dons women's clothing, but because he is so exuberantly himself, without the reservations that hamper Billy.
The show's book and lyrics are written by Lee Hall, who also wrote the screenplay. Elton John's songs, though not instantly catchy, are stronger than his work for The Lion King.
As Billy Bragg's albums prove, the Brits have a knack for mixing heady emotion -- even sentimentality -- with political grit. In the face of union defeat and the economic ruin of a community, Billy's victory as a dancer ascends to symbolic importance, and the uplift is infectious.