On stage through March 13
Recent performances ofDead Man Walking in Houston were a reminder that weighty political themes have an important place on the operatic stage. But Broadway is no stranger to them, either, especially as evidenced by Billy Elliot The Musical, running at Theatre Under the Stars through March 13.
The poignant story of a young boy who dreams of being a great dancer, while his family and society crumble around him, has a particular resonance for me. As a child, I didn't suffer to the extent that Billy does during the 1984 coal miners' strike in northern England, but I was an aspiring ballet dancer in the late 1970s and '80s and my working-class father belonged to a labor union, which meant that now and then he was on strike.
I, too, had a chain-smoking, eccentric and wildly encouraging dance teacher. She took me on the train to New York to see my first performances of Balanchine's New York City Ballet and other troupes, like the legendary Kirov Ballet. One time, we ran into Rudolph Nureyev in the lobby, and he gave me his autograph. Just like Mrs. Wilkinson (played with a rough insistence by Faith Prince here) shows Billy in Act I, my teacher explained how to “spot” during turns, and also gave me free private lessons.
"Never underestimate the power of a dance teacher to change a student's life," is the secondary lesson learned from this heartfelt script.
Here in Houston there are four young men in the title role. I saw the stunning Lex Ishimoto, a talented lad from Irvine, Calif., who excels equally at hip-hop, tap, jazz and ballet. He has a good ear and a strong clear voice, and is perhaps the most convincing actor in the entire cast. If he's doing so well at his early age (he looks around 11-12 years old), then a decade from now certainly he will be one of America's foremost dancers and/or singers. He carries the entire show on his young shoulders, which is no small feat.
The other star in this cast is 12-year-old Jacob Zelonky from Memphis, who plays Billy's aspiring drag-queen-best-friend Michael. He's endlessly funny in this production. When Billy tries to teach him how to do a split, Michael screams, saying, "Now I know why they call it The Nutcracker!"
The most rousing number in the first act is "Expressing Yourself," in which Michael encourages a reluctant Billy to put on a dress, dance as he may, and ignore taunts from friends and family. The two boys offer an inspiring tap-dance surrounded by adults disguised as larger-than-life dresses on coat hangers, all of it allegedly unfolding in the privacy of Michael's humble bedroom, and it's literally a show-stopper.
These two boys also handle the sensitive scenes with great skill. When Michael warms Billy's hands under his coat and gives him a spontaneous kiss, only to find out that Billy won’t be returning his affection, it's an awkward moment to say the least. These actors presented it with dignity, even if certain Houston audience members groaned impolitely at the gay character.
"Really," I thought to myself, "It's the 21st century, haven't you heard of gay people?"
One of the most intriguing back-stories in the Billy Elliot film was the enduring love between the two boys, one gay and the other straight, and thankfully it hasn't been omitted from the show.
If there's another reason not to miss this intriguing musical, it's the second-act pas de deux between Billy and himself, that is, with his older persona. I can think of only one other time where I watched a grown man partner a young boy in classically-based choreography, in Mark Morris' brilliant The Hard Nut, and here the action is amplified by an aerial scene where Billy literally flies into the proscenium. Resident choreographers Kurt Froman and Mary Giattino have created a dance that slowly overwhelms you, set to the most powerful Act II music from Tchaikovsky's SwanLake, and it's breathtaking, filled with unisons, counterpoint, and solos worthy of the serious ballet stage.
Despite the fact that children carry the action forward in this striking musical drama, it’s mostly an adult entertainment. There is plenty of strong language, angry cigarette-smoking coal miners, and even a strange puppet show sending up Margaret Thatcher. I wouldn’t recommend bringing a young child, but kids over 9 and teenagers will enjoy the sparkling musical numbers and dramatic ethical themes.