Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

From left, Kiril Kulish, David Alvarez and Trent Kowalik. Click here to enlarge. (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

NEW YORK – "Billy Elliot" is a phenomenon. The British musical, which opened at Broadway's Imperial Theater last month in an uproar of acclamation, is a big, shrewd combination of pure theatrical artistry and unadulterated music-hall hokum. It is actor- proof, fool-proof, critic-proof and all around irresistible.

In London, it has already run for three years. On Broadway, its cast is all-American except for a single actor who was imported from the London cast. Also on Broadway, because of the arduousness of the leading role, three boys alternate as Billy; it will probably run right through the 21st century till the army of boys playing Billy are all ancient dodderers.

A clever Englishman, Lee Hall, created this miracle first as the 2000 film, which he has now adapted for the musical stage. He has also supplied the lyrics for Elton John’s musical score. Mr. Hall's stage version sticks pretty close to his screenplay about an 11-year-old boy growing up motherless in a bleak northern English circa 1984 mining town, where most of the miners are all on strike against then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's opposition to state-owned industry. Serendipitously, he lands in Mrs. Wilkinson’s ballet class and finds a new life for himself.

Mr. John's score is acceptable but ordinary, supplying a variety of theatrical songs that keep the show moving along at a rapid pace. The show's creators are admirably served by a director of genius, Stephen Daldry, who also directed the film. He worked closely with choreographer Peter Darling to seamlessly integrate the dramatic story of the miners' plight and the more lyrical world of classical ballet. None of the effects is subtle but, in a strange way, by the creators' craftily using every trick in the theatrical handbook, they succeed. Mr. Daldry also has wisely surrounded the youthful cast with seasoned musical theater performers like Gregory Jbara (as Billy's dad), Carole Shelley (as his grandmother), Santino Fontana (as his older brother), and the sole Brit in the class, actress Haydn Gwynne (as Billy's unforgettable teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson).

Of course, all of this would be for naught if it weren't for the right Billy. On the night I attended, Billy was played by a 13- year-old prodigy from San Diego Kiril Kulish. A tall young man with a dancer's build, great grave eyes and the shy, naive personality of an adolescent, he is a triple threat performer who can act, sing and dance. He was so honest in his performance that I was immediately captivated, moved and disarmed by his talent.

For as good as young Mr. Kulish is in a couple of show-stopping dance numbers – the solo "Angry Dance" in Act One, and a dream "Swan Lake" sequence in Act Two – he also shines in the musical's quieter moments, when he is allowed to be just a kid and hang out with his closest chum, Michael. (I saw Frank Dolce as one the two alternating Michaels.) They have a great time cutting loose with an old fashioned song-and-dance routine, "Expressing Yourself."

The physical production by Ian MacNeil is spectacular. He is able to show the dourness of the strike-plagued town – shabby homes, meeting halls and streets  – in contrast to the richness of London's elegant ballet world. He is greatly helped by the witty period costumes of Nicky Gillibrand and the dazzling lighting of Rick Fisher.

But, of course, Billy – in this case, Kiril Kulish – s the real wonder of this touching new British musical; he gives the show the lift that makes it a hit.

Theatergoers should be advised that, because of the striking miner' subject matter, "Billy Elliot" contains some strong language.

Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.