Critic's PickThe touring production of Billy Elliott The Musical, the 2009 Tony Award-winning best musical, shows why this show has been such a crowd pleaser — despite the dour tale of an unsuccessful coal-mining strike in 1984. It’s set in a beleaguered town in northeast England where people speak with a dense accent that doesn’t sit comfortably on American ears. Nevertheless, in the midst of anger and suppression, 11-year-old Billy sneaks away from the boxing class his widowed dad has forced him to attend and lands with a bunch of klutzy girls learning ballet. It strikes his fancy and he shows aptitude, but he knows his macho dad and brother — and their friends — will think he’s a sissy (or worse, a “poof,” a British slang term for a gay man). But the bored teacher (Leah Hocking) sees his potential and pushes him to pursue an audition, a course that affects the entire town.
It’s not an entirely believable story and it milks every emotional chord imaginable — Billy communes more than once with his dead mother — but who cares? It’s full of energetic dancing, humor and song.
The tour has five boys who rotate through the demanding role of Billy; Kylend Hetherington was excellent on opening night. Laughs come from the hilarious poke at the conservative prime minister, “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher,” using puppets and more, and “Solidarity” mixes and matches police and strikers in a manner that Gilbert & Sullivan would recognize. Elton John’s moving songs are used to good effect; Billy’s dad (Rich Hebert) performs the moving ballad, “Deep Into the Ground” and Billy explains how it feels to dance in “Electricity,” which builds to a rousing conclusion.
You can’t go wrong with this much expressive dancing, and the kids who perform it will win your heart, from tiny Jeremy Zorek who gets the show started, to Billy’s ebullient, cross-dressing friend Michael (Ben Cook). The show evoked a rousing, and well-deserved response from the audience on opening night.
BILLY ELLIOTT THE MUSICAL, presented by Broadway Across America at the Aronoff Center, continues through Jan. 29. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.