Sunday, November 23, 2008

Review: Billy Elliot

Worlds Clash in a Coal Miner Ballet

By Lauren Yarger
Just as divergent thoughts, goals and worlds clash in the Sir Elton John-charged musical Billy Elliot, various elements of the production itself sometimes are at odds with each other and cause a pile up of thoughts on the dance floor instead of allowing the viewer to sit back and enjoy the performance.

The show which opened at the Imperial Theater after playing to rave reviews in London and preceded by months of pre-Broadway hype, is a musical interpretation of the 2000 hit movie by the same name (with book and lyrics from Lee Hall, who wrote the screenplay). Overall, it’s entertaining theater with fantastic choreography, great dancing, a bunch of cute kids, some good music and a heartwarming story. A heavy dose of not-so-great language, some music that’s less than inspiring, overused smoke effects and wince-inducing behavior from little kids detract from the good points, however.

Trent Kowalik had the title role the night I was in attendance (the role is rotated among three actors) and was most engaging as the coal miner’s son who finds his passion in ballet. Billy’s penchant for pirouettes doesn’t sit well with his father (a strong performance by Gregory Jbara), however, so Billy lets him think he’s studying boxing instead of taking dance lessons from Mrs. Wilkinson (Hadyn Gwynne). She sees the potential in Billy and wants to help him find his way out of the squalor of the British mining community with an audition for the Royal Ballet. A beautiful dance number has Billy partnered with his future self (Stephen Hanna) where he soars to the heights of his dreams, but the first few rows of the audience are overcome by the thick wall of smoke that rolls off the stage.
Thought collision: This is beautiful. If I could just see it.

Along the way, he gets advice from the spirit of his dead mother (Leah Hocking), helps his crazy grandmother (Carole Shelley) find her missing pasties and tries to avoid the growing tension between his dad and brother (Santino Fontana) during the1984 British National Union of Mineworkers strike. He pals around with his friend Michael, (a talented Frank Dolce who rotates with another actor), who enjoys wearing his sister’s dresses. He urges Billy to join him and they perform a sort of nightclub number “Express Yourself,” which is age inappropriate and which offers large dancing frocks which seem out of place with the feel of the rest of the show. Billy also rebuffs the sexual advances of Mrs. Wilkinson’s little daughter Debbie (Erin Whyland) who offers to show him her private parts (in more graphic language than I just used).
Thought collision: love the kids; don’t like what they’re saying and doing.

Amidst the clash of striking miners and scabs, the community rallies around Billy and his father softens and supports his going to the ballet audition.

John’s score is a mix of signature sounding rock, melodic soul-felt ballads and a rather boring opening number that doesn’t sound like him at all.
Thought collision: don’t like it; like it; where’s some great sounding Aida type stuff?

The best musical number is “Angry Dance,” where John’s beat, Peter Darling’s outstanding choreography, Kowalik’s dancing and director Stephen Daldry’s excellent overlapping of the working and dancing worlds all come together in a terrific end-of-act-one closer where the conflicting elements collide as Billy literally smashes against the wall he’s hit in his life. Darling shows his flexibility with an earlier almost slow-motion number as Billy’s grandmother remembers dancing and drinking with her late husband. He uses movements to make seamless changes between scenes. His genius is showcased in “Solidarity” where the opposing forces come together, interact and switch identities through movement.
No collision here: Darling should start writing a Tony acceptance speech for best choreography.

Ian MacNeil’s set is innovative, with a three-story twisting house frame that rises from below the stage and full-room compartments that are pulled and pushed out of the sides by the actors. Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes tell the characters’ stories and those for Mrs. Wilkinson are particularly outlandish.
Thought collision: while the costumes and dialogue suggest that Mrs. Wilkinson is free spirited and outgoing, Gwynne’s depiction is of a reserved woman never quite able to warm up to Billy and we’re not sure why.

The young children in the ensemble are talented singers and dancers who energize the show. And you can’t help but say, “Awww,” when the small boy, (played at my performance by an adorable Mitchell Michaliszyn), gets hoisted on a burly shoulder à la Tiny Tim.

But the thought collisions had me rolling up and down on the coal ramp saying “I love this” and “I really don’t like this” too many times to tell how I really felt about the whole thing and feeling just a little shafted.

Christians might also like to know:
• Language
• Sexual terms
• Mom is a ghost
• An added personal note: I was distressed by 10 and 11 year olds (and younger) using explicit sexual terms, foul language and cross dressing. My friend Retta reminded me that the language and exposure of the kids to these situations is accurate in the setting of the show, and she’s right. Still, what bothered me most, I think, is the uproarious laugher from the audience. Kids involved with these things at such young ages, even if explained, should be sad, not funny.
• Disclaimer: I admit possible bias in saying that Mitchell Michaliszyn is adorable. His family are long time close, personal friends, but I’m certain I would have written that even if his aunt weren’t one of my most favorite people on the planet.

1 comment:

Jamie said...

OK. First of all, the mom is not a "ghost." Billy just imagines her because he is lonely but her presence is not meant to be taken literally.

There is heavy profanity in both the movie and the musical because it is centered around the UK miners strike, and it is just not logical or historically accurate for the characters to be all, "gosh darn it," when people are starving and being beaten to death in the streets (although this is not depicted).

And finally, Michael. I could go on and on about this. His main purpose in the show is to remind the audience of the reality that Billy's story was a rare one, and that not every child could find the same escape route, not even one like Michael, who, because of his sexual orientation perhaps needed a way out even more than Billy.
However, he also serves to voice the theme of the entire show, that happiness can be achieved if you find at least those little moments to truly express yourself. You say that the number of this title was "age inappropriate." On the contrary, I believe it holds a message that young people should hear - not that "everyone should wear dresses" but simply, "be yourself." It is okay to be different, to wear the clothes you choose, to pursue your dream, to take the ballet lessons. If nothing else, that is one idea that I would hope audiences should take from the show.

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. and the Episcopal Actors' Guild.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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