Looking back at Billy

I offer a belated commentary on show #39 from this past week, Billy Elliot: The Musical, seen in its opening performance of a three month run in San Francisco.

I am not a devout fan of the 2000 film that inspired this play, but I had heard many comments and impressions of the show over the last few years. I was in London when the original production was going into rehearsal (fall 2004 for a spring 2005 opening) and later heard about the Broadway version storming into the theatre district in 2008. I couldn’t shake a feeling that the musical had been Americanized somewhere along the way, and would have liked to have seen the original British version at some point. It is still playing at the Victoria Theatre in London, a venue that is noticeably separate from the rest of the primary West End theatre district. But perhaps Billy needs a space all of his own.

In this touring production, the lead role of Billy is shared by five young actors. I didn’t realize that it would be such a demanding part, as it requires extensive dancing and sizable acting as well. On opening night, a Bay Area native named JP Viernes appeared in the role. I liked that his name is JP, and I was impressed that no attention was made of his Asian heritage in the part. It seems the casting directors very deliberately chose color-blind casting for the show, which is commendable. Billy is supported by a wide ensemble of adults, with well known theatrical maven Faith Prince appearing in the key role of dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson.

The British authenticity of the cast (accents, demeanor, etc) was commendable (they tried hard), but a bit slipshod at the same time. This may have been my reaction to the stretched-out plot, which takes a simple story of Billy discovering the power of dance in a time of strife… and amps up the strife to a degree much higher than what was apparently on screen. I felt this technique was most successful in an act 1 song called “Solidarity” – but at other times it was more uneven. A different-feeling highlight appeared when younger Billy danced with his older self, played by a fellow cast member, to the stirring symphonies of Swan Lake.

Overall I found this to be an impressive, though overlong, production, with particularly notable roles for young actors from any background, and a clearly powerful example of the moving powers of the arts.


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