‘Billy’ Charms with Heart and Great Moves

by Julie Bookman

   The Tony-Award winning musical “Billy Elliot,” which leapt into the Fox Theatre earlier this week for a run that continues through Sunday, is filled with heart and soul and exuberant energy. You’ll laugh, you might weep a little, and you may even try to do your best pirouette in front of a full-length mirror when you get home.
   Sprung from the well-received 2000 film, “Billy Elliot” is about an 11-year-old boy from a hardscrabble Northern England coal-mining community who discovers he has extraordinary talent as a ballet dancer. But in Billy’s small world, which is painfully in the midst of the year-long UK miners’ strike (1984-85), ballet is for “puffs.”
   Unfortunately, “puffs” is not as rough as the language gets in this show. This musical is laced with a bit of profanity, though not in excess. When certain “swear” words are used, it seems honest and authentic to these characters, this time and place, and these trying circumstances. But parents who do not want their youngsters to hear “swear” words coming from the Fox stage should take this as fair warning. The touring production, which includes a dozen children in the cast, is best recommended for ages 12 and up. The show is almost three hours long (including intermission).
   Due to the significant ballet work required for the title role, there are three different youngsters who alternate in the role of Billy, as well as one understudy. On opening night in Atlanta, the role was well realized by J.P. Viernes, 15, the oldest of the lot. (The other Billys in this touring cast are Zach Manske, 12, and Ty Forhan, 13). J.P. Viernes had a natural ease and conviction as an actor, a passable singing voice, and an impressive technique as a ballet artist that twice brought on a sudden burst of applause from the audience.
   Stephen Daldry, who directed “Billy Elliot” the film, is also at the helm of the musical – and that’s surely one of the reasons the intent and vision have not been messed with too much. The score is by Elton John, so there’s a cool blend of hard-driving electronic rock and roll, pumped-up ensemble numbers such as “Solidarity” and “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher,” and lovely ballads.
    One early and poignant highlight is “Dear Billy,” in which Billy shares a letter written to him by his mother before she died; Billy was supposed to wait until age 18 to open the letter, but he didn’t. There are brief scenes in the show when Billy’s “Mum” (Kat Hennessey) appears as if in Billy’s dream-mind  – and these are lump-in-throat moments for any parent, such as when Mum sings “I was with you through everything,” and reminds Billy to “always be yourself.” A fine and multi-colored performance comes from Leah Hocking, the small-time and tacky dancing-school teacher who becomes a bit of a mother figure to Billy. Despite herself, she is compelled to help steer Billy toward his shining star at the Royal Ballet School in London. And we are grateful.

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