Billy Elliot, the inspiring tale of an 11-year-old British boy whose life is forever altered when he discovers dance, has been beguiling audiences ever since screenwriter Lee Hall and director Stephen Daldry made a movie of it in 2000. Yet as stirring and surprising as the award-winning film was, Billy Elliot really found its rhythm when Hall, Daldry and Elton John turned it into a musical in 2005.
Winner of London’s Olivier Award and Broadway’s Tony, Billy Elliot the Musical has finally arrived in South Florida for a two-week run at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts with four talented actor-dancers taking turns in the title role. That sharing of the star part is no gimmick: Playing Billy requires almost three hours of stage time, and choreographer Peter Darling’s showcase dances for Billy demand stamina, polished technique and inspired artistry. J.D. Viernes, who got Wednesday’s opening night gig as Billy, certainly brings all of those qualities to his fierce, moving dancing.
Film fans may recall that Billy Elliot is set during the brutal British miners’ strike of 1984-85, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher launched her ultimately successful campaign to destroy the coal miners’ unions. In County Durham in northeast England, Billy’s Dad (Rich Hebert) and older brother Tony (Cullen R. Titmas) are miners, as are most of the men. Billy’s Mum (Susan Haefner) died young, but she shows up in his imagination as a tender, helpful presence. Dotty Grandma (Cynthia Darlow) physically lives with the Elliot fellas, but her most vivid moments exist in the memories she summons.
Billy’s journey is both simple and filled with obstacles. Once he discovers, thanks to wisecracking ballet teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (Leah Hocking), that dancing makes him feel alive in a way nothing else ever has, can he transcend the macho attitudes and meager means of his working class world to pursue his dream? Therein lies the conflict.
The show’s score, with music by Elton John and lyrics by Hall, is rousingly, beautifully played by an orchestra of touring and local musicians. In his most mature theater score, the famous composer evokes different traditional British musical styles while still delivering the catchy numbers (Shine, Solidarity) that have made him such an enduring pop star.
Billy Elliot is full of broad humor, cheeky kids and the occasional raised middle finger. Two of the young performers, Samantha Blaire Cutler as Mrs. Wilkinson’s crushing-on-Billy daughter Debbie and Cameron Clifford as Billy’s pal Michael (who has his own Billy crush), nearly make off with the show. Clifford’s funny, brazen Michael is a joy-filled rebuke to the characters who opine that ballet is less than manly. Decked out in a dress or a tutu, Michael doesn’t give a fig. His razzle-dazzle number with Billy, Expressing Yourself, really does make the crowd go wild.
But so does so much of Billy Elliot. Viernes is a stunning young dancer, expressively frightening and furious during Angry Dance, thrillingly exuberant as he expresses his passion on Electricity, and harmoniously glorious during his soaring dance with chiseled Maximilien A. Baud as the grown-up Billy.
Speaking of growing up, Viernes (who shares the lead role with Ty Forhan, Kylend Hetherington and Zach Manske) looks like he’s doing just that. But whether he’s nearing his Billy Elliot swan song or continuing on a long road in a much-loved musical, his dancing is truly impressive.