Jan 19, 2015

[Theater] Billy Elliot the Musical Live (2014)

Billy Elliot was quite the gem of a movie - well actually it remains quite endearing with a powerful message. It's an inspiring story of a young boy pursuing his dreams and breaking beyond stereotypes.

I wasn't too surprise when it was announced that a stage musical adaptation of the movie had been made. I was impressed to see it win a good number of Tony Awards after its release. But what really got me excited was the fact that they eventually released a live recording of the stage musical on home video (after a highly limited theater release).

Billy Elliot the Musical Live is one of those rare instances of a stage play being recorded - at least when you look at recent years. But with this release and the likes of Shrek the Musical about a year ago, perhaps this is the beginning of a new trend celebrating the home video market? I mean seriously, despite the many touring companies around the world, not everyone has the ability to travel to London or New York to see some of the very best that theater as to offer. So it's only fair to increase accessibility, right?

Synopsis: Billy Elliot the Musical Live is a live recording of Billy Elliot the Musical. Like the original 2000 film and the 2005 musical before it, this movie was directed by Stephen Daldry.

It's 1984 and the coal miners' strike has pretty much just begun. Thus the mining community of County Durham is pretty hard hit by these events and everyone is struggling to get by. We meet young Billy Elliot (Elliot Hanna) and his family and learn that his father (Deka Walmsley) and older brother (Chris Grahamson) are both miners participating in the strike. His mother died years ago and thus its up to his father, brother and his grandmother (Ann Emery) to raise him.

One day Billy happens to linger after his boxing class and ends up staying long enough to see Mrs. Wilkinson's (Ruthie Henshall) ballet class. He finds himself interested to the whole notion of dancing, but of course he tries to keep his distance since it's not something his father would think appropriate for a boy. But then he starts to participate and eventually starts using the money for his boxing classes to attend dancing class in secret instead. All the while the strike continues and clashes between the miners and the police seem to escalate further.

Now the original movie already had a good story, so I was pretty sure that the play would be enjoyable in that respect. The decision to turn it into a musical didn't initially strike me as anything special - movies turned into musicals tend to follow a particular format at times. But then now that I've finally gotten to see what the stage production was like, the transformation involved here was beyond anything I could have imagined.

They really went a long way to turn this into a unique theatrical experience. And while you can have any number of special effects or clever sequences in movies, theater allows for a different kid of magic entirely. A great example of this is how they presented the number for "Solidarity" that starts as a sort of montage sequence of Billy's early dance lessons. But them the walls of the classroom turn into the edge of the picket line as the miners and the police face off. Thus you have the two scenes juxtaposed in a manner that doesn't break the whole musical aspect to things. And just because you have the riot cops and the miners dancing  doesn't mean this in any way diminishes the seriousness of their cause. If anything, the way everything came together resulted in a narrative form that felt a lot more powerful than the original movie.

In the first movie, Billy's story really shined and it was certainly something worth celebrating. In this stage version, they found a way to give both Billy's story and the miners's strike almost equal focus here. And sure, the mining piece is really more about setting, but they certainly made sure the setting truly came alive here. Thus the period when the story was set becomes such a crucial element in the story as well.

It goes without saying that the performances in this production are phenomenal. Young Elliot John makes for a pretty brilliant Billy. Whether in terms of his stage presence, his intensity or his performances, it's hard to find fault with his role here. Ruthie Henshall makes for a great Mrs. Wilkinson and the entire cast is pretty stellar indeed.

Billy Elliot the Musical Live is one of those rare chances to see such a wonderful stage production distributed in manner that allows more people to see the show. This beats any possible movie adaptation that could come along and you're missing a part of your life if you don't take the time to watch this. Thus the show gets a full 5 amazingly choreographed dance numbers out of a possible 5.

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