Musical Review: Billy Elliot

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to see this production at the Des Moines Civic Center, now touring nationally. I went to the Saturday matinée where the lead role of Billy was played by Zach Manske and his amusing side-kickish friend Michael was played by Cameron Clifford. I mention the latter in particular (besides just the star) because that kid pretty much stole whatever scene he talked in.

I have a habit of seeing things without knowing what they are about (or as my Fifty Shades of Grey will attest, it’s not limited to the performing arts) and usually it works out rather well. This time was no exception (one exception could be made for August Rush…that was a major shock. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a musical that partially deals with mental illness, not too upbeat of a show). Things I learned:

  1. This place took place during Margaret Thatcher’s term as Prime Minister.
  2. One of the subplots (or happenings) is the miners strike (which actually took place – and was the nation’s longest).
  3. The play was loosely based on the life of Peter O’Brien
  4. Puff might be a synonym for pansy
  5. Giant puppets of Margaret Thatcher (a grotesque version – obviously) are creepy

I was very impressed with this kid (well teenager a suppose if you want to be technical) who had the tremendous task of carrying a production of such scale. This was a huge ensemble production, but if you don’t like the title character/main character it certainly makes things trickier, I would imagine. (I did see a performance last year where I couldn’t stand the main character’s singing voice. It made it hard to stay engaged when whenever she opened her mouth I would disconnect thinking, “Why on earth would she sing that way?”) This show, obviously, was dance heavy and it was odd when I realized some of the songs listed in the program were purely danced through, no singing. I have the habit of counting how many songs are in each act so I can judge how close we’re getting to the end. The dancing only messed me up, but I also lost count because I was just so absorbed by all the movement and such on-screen. It was also weird, for me, that the main character only had one or two solo songs. Unlike Legally Blonde, for example, which there are several. This production just was a bit different from anything I’ve seen in the past, and it makes me wonder why. Is it because it’s dance heavy? Or child actor heavy? Whatever the reason it was quite refreshing.

I should preface this next comment with that things have been making me easily cry for a while now (apparently I’m repressing something so I cry at random things) but I did get choked up when Billy was reading both the letter from and to his mother. I don’t know why, granted it was touching, but it was just kind of sad I suppose. Anyway, I liked how subtle it was, the scenes with his mom. You were able to tell him imagining her there – oh and at the end when he asked if he’d be seeing her again and she replied ‘what do you think’ and in return he said ‘i suppose not’. (Roughly, it was a few days ago – but that was the sentiment). Such a simple moment, but with such huge implications. Like he’s off on his way to grow up and can’t continue to have day dreams about his mother despite the fact he’ll carry her with him. Just very well done.

Now a quick praise of the character Michael. I loved him, and the kid that played him was AMAZING! The first big scene with this kid has Billy going over to talk to him about ballet. Michael talks about Billy perhaps being a puff all while wearing a dress. Brilliant. Than he makes Billy dress up too “It’s fine to do it, my dad does all the time” – gold. Like I said, every scene where he had bits of dialogue, usually with Billy, he stole the scene. He was Billy’s opposite I suppose. Michael is such a bright ball of…something that offset Billy’s serious/difficult nature. Billy’s dealing with his mother’s death, not wanting to be a normal kid and box, his desire to do ballet, his dad and brother being on strike, letting his ballet teacher down and not being ‘himself’ – which is one of the things his mom tells him to do in her letter to him. Where as Michael can just run around wearing skirts (in private) and box, even though he usually hides/slacks off from the teacher. A pleasing balance in a childhood friendship.

So all in all, I enjoyed this musical and would recommend it. So until next time ~ Q