'Billy Elliot' dances into the Cities

  • Article by: ROHAN PRESTON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 19, 2010 - 5:52 PM

REVIEW: The mega-musical Broadway tour show about a British boy who dreams of a life in dance soars, for the most part. But something is missing.

Faith Prince as Mrs. Wilkinson and Giuseppe Bausilio as Billy in "Billy Elliot, the Musical."

Photo: Michael Brosilow, Star Tribune

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As the title character in "Billy Elliot," Michael Dameski bounds across the stage of Minneapolis' Orpheum Theatre with flawless technique. He executes Peter Darling's inventive choreography -- whether leaping onto police shields or tearing his elevated bedroom apart in anger or frustration -- with evocative flair at Friday's opening night performance of the mega-musical.

One of five young actors who take turns playing the title character in Minneapolis, Dameski was skillful and captivating in the Broadway tour of a show with a sentiment-tugging book by Lee Hall and derivative music by Elton John.

That this musical lacks memorable, anthemic songs (candidates include the choral numbers "Once We Were Kings" and "Solidarity" as well as the spoof-inviting "Born to Boogie") almost doesn't matter.

"Billy" is a show about the irrepressible urge to move -- to find one's mojo in rhythmic leaps and tap dance. Dance is the personal expression of the motherless 11-year-old title character who lives with his forgetful Grandma (Patti Perkins), older brother Tony (Jeff Kready) and hard-bitten coal miner dad (Rich Hebert).

Dad, a vociferous man who is on strike with his co-workers, would rather have Billy learn boxing in the tense 1984 working-class British community setting of the show. But dance, which Billy discovers by accident in a class taught by hard-driving ballet mistress Mrs. Wilkinson (Faith Prince), also is about healing and social uplift. Even though ballet is little understood and regarded with suspicion by the rugged men around Billy, it is a path for the lad, under the guidance of his teacher, to escape a dead-end future in a declining town.

This clash between old and new values, between batons and tutus, is staged with mechanical fanfare by Stephen Daldry, who delights a little too much in it. The show is a bit long, and at Friday's opening, the first act seemed rough around the edges.

Still, it is easy to see why "Billy," ballyhooed in Britain, where it originated, and New York, where it won 10 Tony Awards, has been such a juggernaut. It has a touching story that could be set in America's Rust Belt. And the action is centered on youngsters on whom we can project our own dreams.

In this "Billy," the youth cast is especially appealing. Assured actor Jacob Zelonky deserves special praise for his portrayal of Michael, Billy's self-possessed friend who likes to play dress up with his mother's clothes.

Zelonky, one of two young actors to alternate in the role, has spot-on comic timing and a charismatic stage presence that probably make him the envy of many an adult actor.

Star Dameski turns "Angry Dance," which comes at a moment of despair, into something fiercely beautiful. And he is a strong actor.

Most of the adults in "Billy" are commendable, including Hebert as tough Dad and Patrick Wetzel as rehearsal piano player Mr. Brathwaite. He does the splits.

Prince, who plays Mrs. Wilkinson, may have been having an off night Friday. She played her role at the surface -- all stern visage and malcontent.

Darling's choreography, including a memory come alive for Grandma, feels rooted in the feelings and action of the stage. For example, in one scene, clashing miners and police were braided like two sides of a zipper, with tensions bringing them together and Mrs. Wilkinson's dancers pushing them apart.

Despite the dance and the beautiful images, I found the show wanting. This was made evident at the end of the night when the mega-musical seemed to end, but continued on. Ordinarily, a coda would be an offering for ravenous fans, but as the smiling singer-dancers of "Billy" launched into another number and standing patrons took their seats again, it felt like something else.

The manifold goodbyes were a way to make up for the fact that this Broadway show, up through Jan. 9, ends not with a bang but with a whimper. The tension that pitted the metal implements of the miners and the feather props of the dancers had been decided in favor of lightness and grace.

Rohan Preston • rpreston@startribune.com

  • related content

  • "Billy Elliot, the Musical"

  • BILLY ELLIOT

    Who: Book and lyrics by Lee Hall. Music by Elton John. Directed by Stephen Daldry.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Mon.-Wed., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Thu., 6:30 p.m. Sat., 1 & 6:30 p.m. Sun. Ends Jan. 9.

    Where: Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.

    Tickets: $33-$133.50. 1-800-982-2787 or www.hennepintheatretrust.org.

    Web: See video excerpts from the show at startribune.com/entertainment.

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