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Theater Review: “Billy Elliot The Musical” at the Kennedy Center

The holiday show is a heart-warming, thrilling production.

Leah Hocking (Mrs. Wilkinson) and the company of Billy Elliot the Musical. Photograph by Kyle Froman.

☆☆☆ ½ out of four

The tale of Billy Elliot, the boy from a poor mining town in northern England who beats the odds to become a ballet sensation, is the kind of underdog success story that’s impossible not to love. Originally a hit movie written by Lee Hall (2005’s Pride and Prejudice, this year’s War Horse) and directed by Stephen Daldry (2008’s Oscar-nominated The Reader), Billy Elliot The Musical debuted in London in 2005 and won ten Tony Awards—including “Best Musical”—in 2009.

The touring production stopping at the Kennedy Center through January 15, also directed by Daldry, keeps all of the elements that endeared Billy to audiences from the start, along with the addition of sensational choreography by Peter Darling. Billy soars. He leaps. He explores dance in every form as his only emotional outlet in the bleak world he inhabits. And the audience soars with him.

For such a feel-good show, Billy Elliot has a surprisingly dark story. Billy’s father and brother are coal miners struggling through the 1984–85 strike—a brutal, year-long process that would eventually fail. His mother is dead, his grandmother hoards moldy food in strange places, and the feeling of hopelessness at home is pervasive. The dim lighting and the black scrim that looms over the stage for much of the production reflect a climate of dull despair. But hope comes to Billy in the form of an unlikely source: ballet. With the help of a formidable but caring teacher (Leah Hocking), Billy discovers a talent for dance that lifts him into an entirely new world.

There are five young actors who alternate in this demanding role. On press night, we saw Lex Ishimoto as Billy, and he was transcendent. As soon as he started to move, he owned the audience. But despite the score’s credentials (the music was written by Elton John), none of the songs are particularly memorable. “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher,” a jab at the Conservative government that precipitated the miners’ strike, is the best of the lot. But that doesn’t stop Billy.

The audience faces an additional burden—the actors’ dialect is so strong that much of the dialogue is incomprehensible. But oh, those dancing feet! That young body that defies gravity and explodes on stage! The dazzling production numbers also use police riot shields and other surprising props for incredible effects, and the curtain call number rivals the best Broadway has ever offered.

The dancing is electric, the story is heart-warming, and you can’t help but be mad about the boy. Put Billy on your holiday list—as a gift to yourself.

Billy Elliot is at the Kennedy Center through January 15. Tickets ($25 to $150) are available through the KenCen’s Web site.