Billy Elliot at Village Theatre

Before I write another word, let me say that Village Theatre’s production of Billy Elliot is a technical masterpiece, from the huge movie screen that opens the show with clips from old newsreels to the (literally) soaring send-up of Swan Lake that highlights Act II. The cast is uniformly energetic and incredibly solid; there’s not a weak voice or dancing slouch in the group. That tally notably includes the four (yes, four) thirteen-year-old boys who share the title role of Billy Elliot, Billy’s good friend Michael Caffrey (shared by two young actors), and the seven young actresses who comprise “the ballet girls” whose class time Billy invades just long enough to find his passion. I’d also add a special note of praise for the voices of the adult men who comprise the coal miners: their final lament, “Once We Were Kings,” sung as they descend into the mines for the first time following a heartbreaking labor dispute, is sublime. Kudos as well to the production folks who pulled off the trick of making it sound as though those men were descending into a mine shaft.

All of the above makes Billy Elliott worth the price of admission. Certainly, the audience present for the performance I attended loved it. That said … I can’t imagine Billy Elliott joining my Top Ten list of stage musicals any time soon.

The story is simple and in many ways poignant: Billy, an artistic diamond in the rough, is a budding artiste doomed to life in a depressed and struggling (and rough) blue-collar mining town. He hasn’t a hope in hell of living up to his potential or fulfilling what, over the course of Act I, becomes his dream — to attend the Royal Ballet School — and not just because his widowed father and brother are aghast at the possibility; no, it’s because the whole country is in the midst of a year-long coal strike that has left Billy’s hometown impoverished, even starving. There simply is no money. (At one point the entire town pools its resources to finance the £20 (twenty pound) cost of a bus trip to London and comes up with only a little more than £19.) Without the trip to London, Billy cannot audition for the school. But have no fear; Billy Elliot is a tale of hope, not of tragedy. In the best of stage traditions, the day is saved through the generosity of a most unexpected source: one of the hated scab miners (a handful of miners continue to work during the strike) hands over enough to finance the bus trip. Billy gets his audition and is admitted to the Royal Ballet School.

All of which would be well and good, even stirring, if it were evenly spread over the show’s two-and-a-half hours. It’s not. Act I dances around the subject at hand so wildly that, by intermission, I felt as though I had polished off an entire vat of cotton candy: stuffed, but under-nourished. Not that the individual pieces weren’t entertaining; how could they not be with the talented cast Village Theatre has assembled? Yet, for all that, an hour and a half of character development, without a commensurate helping of plot development, leaves the viewer gasping for sustenance and praying for emotional involvement. Yes, the characters on stage had some appeal, but they didn’t make me particularly care about any of them. Oh, I could see where the story was going … it just seemed that it would never get there! Had I been a paying customer, sadly, I may well have bailed after Act I.

Doing so would have been a mistake.

If Act I is dessert, then Act II is a robust main course, the meat-and-potatoes that both the townsfolk and the audience long for. As Billy’s father grows conflicted over his younger son’s artistic bent (his older son is already a fellow miner) the entire production seems to sprout emotional content and, suddenly, I found myself beginning to care. Half-way into the second act I wanted to see Billy achieve his goal. That the goal was ballet hardly seemed to matter, by that point; Billy had finally become a person, and like all people, deserved to live his dream.

Then came that delicious mens’ chorale I mentioned earlier, “Once We Were Kings,” and the poignance of the whole thing took flight: Billy achieved his dream while everyone he knew and loved had their dreams crushed. Yet, it had to be that way; a diamond in the rough, after all, only becomes a gem once removed from the rough.

So Billy Elliot goes into the books as recommended with an asterisk (*). Once you get to the end you’ll feel good; you will have enjoyed your evening. Just, be prepared for a slow start to that evening. Be forewarned and try not to overdo the cotton candy of Act I on the way to the repast of Act II. Had I known that in advance, this may well have been a far more glowing review. Certainly, the production and performances provide a shine that their story struggles to provide.

Billy Elliot, a Village Theatre production. At the Frances J. Gaudette Theatre in Issaquah May 12 through July 3; Moving to Everett’s Performing Arts Center July 8-31.

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