The Orpheum has to be a sound designer’s nightmare. Better suited as a cinema than a proscenium theatre, its inadequate acoustic properties simply cannot compensate for its cavernous dimensions. Consequently, no matter how electronically enhanced the performers voices might be, they’re often overwhelmed by the orchestral accompaniment to the point of sonic dissonance and unintelligible lyrics. Sadly, this is the case for many of the musical numbers in this national tour of the Tony Award-winning and international phenomenon known as Billy Elliot.
Set in Northern England during the devastating coal miner’s strike of the 1980s, it’s about a boy whose gift for the dance provides both an escape for him and a beacon of hope for a townspeople beset by economic and political struggle. The juxtaposition of fantasy elements with a backdrop of such intense adversity is reminiscent of the Depression era musicals of the 1930s. Unfortunately, those who originally conceived this show have nowhere near the talent of a Porter, Gershwin, or Rogers and Hart, and it often feels more contrived than genuine it its emotional content.
Admittedly, Sir Elton John has composed some of the most memorable pop melodies of our time, but he fails to deliver a single one for this disappointing, albeit often entertaining, extravaganza.
Where this production excels, however, is in the uniformly brilliant casting. Because the eleven-year old Billy is obliged to endure a virtual marathon of dance sequences of various styles, the producers chose to alternate with a different actor for each scheduled performance. J. P. Viernes (from Half Moon Bay) was on stage on press night and he was certainly up to the task, displaying a versatility and agility far beyond his years that was duly rewarded with an enthusiastic standing ovation.
He’s given solid support by the inimitable Broadway veteran Faith Prince, as the plain speaking but undeniably affable dance instructor Mrs. Wilkinson, and the redoubtable Rich Hebert, who brings a gravitas and contrasting comic charm to the working class widower whose reluctance to support his son’s dream undergoes a change when he sees him perform. And the ballet school ensemble, featuring a troupe of wonderfully talented girls of various ages, matches them both in terms of dedication and comedic acumen!
But the true scene-stealer is Griffin Birney, as Billy’s young friend Michael, who has a penchant for wearing women’s clothes and collecting Barbie dolls. He embraces his character’s evident “puffery” (Brit slang for homosexuality) with such alacrity and utter abandon that one can’t help but admire the maturity of his commitment. He’s featured in a surreal tap dancing segment of such over-the-top glitter and bravado that it may very well be a costume designer’s (Nicky Gillibrand) most outrageous flight of fancy! It’s aided immeasurably by set designer Ian MacNeil and lighting by Rick Fisher. Bravo!
And there’s the rub. The spectacular production numbers are well executed but too often prone to excess – and yet they remain fun to watch. And they’re certainly more successful and less forced than the overtly dramatic scenes.
In a captivating ballet number, for example, Billy performs a pas de deux with an older version of himself (the superb Maximilien A. Baud) to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. It largely works, but then the choreographer (Peter Darling) falls prey to his worse instincts and chooses a coda that has him soaring through space on a wire. The blatant metaphor is superfluous and transforms the sublime into a mundane Vegas act!
There’s undoubtedly much to enjoy, but ultimately it left one mostly viscerally underwhelmed and disillusioned.
***Update: SHN has announced that Billy Elliot will close four weeks early on August 21, 2011.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus