Solidarity, Solidarity! Solidarity Forever.
Along with this recent mid-winter â€œheat waveâ€ that blew into the Burgh, on its tailwinds it brought one of the hottest musicals touring the U.S. today. Tuesday, January 31st, The Benedum Center opened its doors to a two-week run of â€œBilly Elliotâ€, a musical based off the widely popular 2000 film of the same name, written by Lee Hall. Mr. Hall’s inspiration for the screenplay partly came from the 1935 novel â€œThe Stars Look Downâ€ by A.J. Cronin. Arguably however, the most important factor that made this musical such an international hit was its original music by award-winning artist Sir Elton John.
While I was familiar with the movie, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it in it’s entirety. I knew a little of the background, but most of the plot was a discovery for me as well. We find ourselves opening in the small mining county of Durham, England in the mid 1980s. The small town and its inhabitants are finding themselves facing tough times and adversity caused by the great UK miners strike of 1984-85. We meet young Billy Elliot being raised in the background of the perils of his father and older brother and a somewhat senile grandmother. They are dealing with the union’s strike and the police pressure put on the community to not picket or disrupt the work of the scabs that crossed the line.
Billy, a young scrap on the heels of teenage years ahead, is a curious and loveable child. To his father’s wishes however, he is taught and preached to about being a tough man. His father and brother instill this with a tough love approach. Even though his father is out of work, his father still scrapes the money for Billy to attend boxing classes at the community center to learn to be a man and protect himself. Billy however, seems to be the one needing to protect his elders from themselves. It is clear the young man is years beyond his age, as well as a respected member of the community. Boxing class lets out a bit earlier one day and Billy’s coach (and father’s co-worker) leaves Billy with the keys to the center to give to the next instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson. Within moments the room is overrun with little girls in tutus and Billy finds himself trapped amongst them. Mrs. Wilkinson instantly finds herself wooed by the innocence and charm of young Billy and tries to teach him a few dance moves. At the end of class though, we find that he may have enjoyed the class more than he originally thought and some of the girls there may fancy his company as well.
So the money that was to go to boxing was now teaching Billy turns, positions, and routines. The young man was becoming a dancer in front of Mrs. Wilkinson’s eyes. She saw in him dreams that she was unable to accomplish in her career. The drive and passion that was needed to get this young man out of the struggling community and do something with his life was strong in him. So when the opportunity presented itself, Mrs. Wilkinson arranged for a chance of a lifetime for her protÃ©gÃ©, an audition with the Royal Ballet Theatre School. Just as Billy’s talent was growing stronger and gaining momentum, so too were tensions in his family and community with the ongoing strike and poverty that famished them all. Word spread via the picket line that Billy hadn’t been in boxing classes, and his father grew curious to where his son and money had been going every day. Billy’s secret is found and he is forbidden to dance or audition and becomes the laughing stock of his friends. Being the good kid he is, as well as dealing with the shame of his friends, he quits dancing, he respects his father’s wishes and hangs up the slippers…or does HE???
The answer to that question can be found several ways, and if you take the easy way out and Netflix it you should be ASHAMED! Since the role of Billy and many principal actors are so physically demanding, they have 4 young men alternating the role of Billy as well as numerous understudies for the main cast that rotate regularly. On the premiere night in the Burgh I particularly enjoyed the strong character performance of the Grandmother, and her sheer lovability even though she’s old and nuts! The relationship between father and son also made it through to the audience with a strong casting choice. However, the lady that stole the show for me was the woman that played Mrs. Wilkinson. Her love and dedication to Billy and their shared passion of dance was evident from their first interaction.
The US tour of â€œBilly Elliot â€“ The Musical â€œ, will be playing the Benedum Center though February 12th 2012. For tickets please contact the Benedum Center’s Box Office @ 412-456-6666 or visit the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust website.