Billy Elliot - hands-down the best new musical Mirvish Productions has brought to Toronto in years - is an exhilarating show full of powerful paradoxes.
In telling this tale of a coal miner's son who wants to become a ballet dancer, the Elton John-scored musical mourns the loss of collective values, even as it preaches the gospel of individuality.
It takes the art form most closely associated with the Margaret Thatcher era and ideology - the British mega-musical - and peoples it with characters struggling against Thatcherite policies.
And it fills the stage with enough cute kid performers to populate both Annie and Oliver!, all the while remaining utterly unsentimental about childhood.
That it pulls all that off while entertaining to the max makes it nothing less than a triumph.
Eleven-year-old Billy Elliot (played on opening night by the sensational Cesar Corrales, one of four boys alternating in the part) accidentally stumbles upon ballet - pronounced, in his Geordie accent, like the first half of Bali Ha'i - one day after a boxing lesson at the local gym.
Under the guidance of the tough-as-nails, but, of course, secretly soft-hearted Mrs. Wilkinson (Kate Hennig in a perfectly tuned performance), Billy discovers his passion for dance - much to the chagrin and confusion of his hard-working, hard-nosed father (Armand Schultz) and brother (Patrick Mulvey).
What lifts Billy's story above the small-town performer pursuing his dream cliché is the historical context. This boy's personal problems take place amid the larger struggle of the 1984-1985 miners' strike, in which Thatcher tried and succeeded in crushing the unions and essentially put an end to a way of life. (British mining employed more than 300,000 men in 1984; now fewer than 1,000 work in the industry.)
In his choreography, Peter Darling brilliantly illustrates the tensions here. There's an early number called Solidarity, where the miners and riot police face off as Billy and the nine girls in his ballet class weave in and out of them, that's a mini-masterpiece; it's funny and frightening, and it expresses the problems and power of collective movements through collective movement.
Billy's solos are similarly spectacular. Corrales, a 14-year-old former student of Canada's National Ballet School, pulls off the challenging choreography with panache, from the gorgeous dream ballet, where he dances to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake with his future self; to his "angry dance," which tells the fury of an entire community through frenetic footwork; to the explosive Electricity, which had the audience leaping to its feet at its conclusion.
He is hardly the only young talent on display here: Dillon Stevens wows on the acting and singing side as Billy's theatrical friend Michael, who enjoys dressing up in his sister's clothes. (He alternates with Jack Broderick.)
You get the feeling in Michael's dynamite (and more than a little subversive) number Expressing Yourself - performed with a fantasy chorus line of towering, tap-dancing frocks - that composer Elton John is finally in his element.
Elsewhere, the Rocket Man's songs - which run from folk tunes to boogie to what sound like Les Miserables B-sides - are stylistically diverse, to be euphemistic. They do help tell the story and provide a solid backdrop to the dances, however, so the fact that they march all over the map and provide few memorable melodies is excusable.
The often awkward lyrics by Lee Hall (who also wrote the excellent dialogue and the 2000 movie the musical is based on) may actually be more problematic. They don't always sit on herky-jerky rhythms entirely comfortably; add the cast's accents into the equation and it's not always easy to discern what the characters are singing. In the puppet-filled Act 2 opener Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher, it took about three choruses to clearly understand that the miners and their children were singing: "We all celebrate today 'cause it's one day closer to your death."
Yes, the musical is often quite coarse - though, at other times, it U-turns toward shameless sentiment. One moment children are getting clocked in the face for laughs, the next Billy's mother (Anne Tolpegin) is imploring him from beyond the grave: "In everything you do, always be yourself." Director Stephen Daldry never finds a consistent comic tone for the characterizations, which almost turn into clowning when Billy's father encounters a preposterously posh parent on a trip to London.
But Billy Elliot is, ultimately, more interesting for its bumps than some of the smooth but insipid musicals that have made their way to town. The story, and the thrilling dances excellently executed, make this an extravaganza well worth its moments of extravagance.
Billy Elliot The Musical
- Book and lyrics by Lee Hall
- Music by Elton John
- Directed by Stephen Daldry
- Starring Cesar Corrales, Kate Hennig
- At the Canon Theatre in Toronto