Most of us will never know the kind of community solidarity that features so movingly in Billy Elliot The Musical because most of us in "right-to-work" North Carolina have little experience with organized labor. But the real-life British coal miners’ strike of 1984-85 that forms the backdrop of this rousing story heralded a lasting change in the relations between labor, capital and government.
When British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her gang broke the coal miners’ union, they destroyed livelihoods and towns, but in the northern England county of Durham, where Billy Elliot is set, the community rallies behind its striking miners, exercising their ferocious wit to keep despair at bay. The Durham of this story is filled with strong men who do the hard dirty work that keeps society moving. But always there is someone who doesn’t fit the pattern, and that is Billy. Sent by his rough-edged father to learn boxing and man up, Billy accidentally finds himself in a ballet class, and finds his dream.
Of course, he has to hide his secret love of pirouettes, but like all big audacious dreams in movies and musicals, his passionate artistry eventually works its magic on all around him. Billy becomes a talisman of hope to people who have little left to hope for, and they pitch in their bits from the dole to make it come true.
All this could be terribly sappy, but it is not. It’s inspiring. And, replete with good acting to Lee Hall’s script, pithy songs set well to Elton John’s tunes, strong dancing, fabulous sets, perfect costumes and excellent lighting effects, it’s a class-A entertainment. Nor has it been overly sanitized. The violence of the strike has necessarily been stylized into dance numbers, but choreographer Peter Darling and director Stephen Daldry have kept the dark thrills of battle in the encounters between riot police and strikers, and there is still plenty of mildly salty language.
In a Christmas Eve dance, the young Billy dances a pas de deux to music from Swan Lake with the older version of himself, the grown professional dancer he hopes to become. This is the most beautiful scene (lovely lighting effects on the ground fog), and for Triangle balletomanes, it includes the wonderful surprise of again seeing Maximilien A. Baud, formerly of the Carolina Ballet.
Patti Perkins is perfectly delightful as Grandma, losing her wits but not her memories of the bliss of dancing. Rich Hebert with his roaring voice is moving as the gruff father way out of his comfort zone. But the show belongs to Faith Prince, nearly as much as to Billy. As Mrs. Wilkinson, she’s foulmouthed and blowsy, a jaded realist, running a second-rate ballet studio for talent-less girls. But she’s big-hearted, and able to recognize in the motherless Billy a talent that far exceeds her own. She gives Billy the gift of daring faith in himself, and challenges his dad and the town to back him up.
Maggie Thatcher broke the union, but she couldn’t break the solidarity of the workers with one of their own—and who celebrate at the end with a rip-roaring production number in which everyone gets to wear a tutu.