PLAYING AROUND

Blown Away by ‘Billy’

The young lead leapt off the stage into my heart

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I couldn’t wait to see the film “Billy Elliot” after its release in 2000. The irresistible story of an 11-year-old boy who discovers ballet to escape the hard realities of a decaying English mining town and the energetic, aggressive dancing spoke to my predilection for British accents and musicals.

When it became a staged musical in 2005, I lumped it in with the pile of productions recycled from old movies. Sure, many of those have been good, but most of them have not broken new ground. Even with music by Elton John, it wasn’t high on my list.

So, I didn’t have high expectations when I saw the touring production of “Billy Elliot the Musical” at the Times-Union Center for Performing Arts Feb. 26.

Instead, I was blown away.

It’s rare to see a musical that stretches the medium, but “Billy Elliot the Musical” does just that. Instead of simply telling the story from the movie, the creative team reimagined the narrative as if it were originally being told in the musical format.

It probably helps that the original production was directed by Stephen Daldry and choreographed by Peter Darling, the same team behind the movie.

The songs aren’t particularly memorable; you won’t find yourself singing them to yourself as you walk out of the theater. But the music drives the fantastic staging and unbridled choreography throughout.

The first scenes are a bit slow, but once the dancing starts, it’s mesmerizing. “Solidarity” acts as a montage of Billy’s growth from clumsy boxer to ballet prodigy set against the growing clashes between police and striking miners. The scene juxtaposes pixie ballerinas and rugged miners as they intertwine in one building dramatic conflict.

When Grandma tells Billy about her complex relationship with his late grandpa during “We’d Go Dancing,” we see their feisty, flirtatious relationship played out in a bar full of dancing men.

Chairs play so many roles in this production, from dancing partners to symbols of defiance to the baggage of life.

Billy explodes in “Angry Dance” when his father forbids him to audition for the Royal Ballet School in London, and his fierce tapping butts up against the police in full riot gear.

When Billy discovers his friend Michael trying on women’s clothing, he joins in for the joyful anthem “Expressing Yourself,” tapping along with eye-popping dresses.

In “Electricity,” we not only hear what Billy feels when he’s dancing, we see it bursting from inside him.

The role of Billy would be demanding for anyone, but it’s amazing that a young actor/dancer can carry so much of a musical production. Four boys rotate in the lead role. Ben Cook’s performance on opening night brought tears during his heartbreaking recollections of his dead mother and cheers during his acrobatic and eloquent routines.

If the movie didn’t accomplish this, surely the musical will convince anyone that ballet and boys are a powerful mix.

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