Applause: An exhilarating ‘Billy Elliot’ at Goodspeed
“Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher, May God’s love be with you; We all sing together in one breath, Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher, We all celebrate today, ‘Cause it’s one day closer to your death.”
That caustic lyric opens Act Two of “Billy Elliot,” the brilliant, exhilarating, moving British musical (book and lyrics by Lee Hall, music by Elton John) now in a mostly superb production at Goodspeed Musicals.
The symbolic hatchets being hurled at former Prime Minister Thatcher bear the mark of her negative attitude toward unions and her desire to nationalize the coal mining industry, leading to a 1984 workers’ strike. The walk-out was eventually broken and lights came on again in citizens’ homes.
The “Billy Elliot” success (it played 1,312 performances on Broadway, winning 10 Tony Awards) is a reminder that most great musicals balance personal stories against a political background. In fact, it’s almost essential that the public and private mesh. Here are some past examples:
“Of Thee I Sing” — The first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize satirizes campaigns, celebrity and a do-nothing vice-presidency (“Each mortal loves his neighbor / Who’s that loving pair? It’s Capital and Labor!”).
“South Pacific” (to be revived next season at Goodspeed) — Two World War II romances are complicated by prejudice (“You’ve got to be taught / to hate and fear”).
“Billy Elliot” is at Goodspeed Musical, East Haddam,Ct., through Nov. 24. Call 860-873-8668or visitgoodspeed.org.
“An American in Paris” is at Westchester Broadway Theater, Elmsford, N.Y., through Nov. 24. Call 914-592-2222 or visit broadwaytheatre.com.
“Fiorello” — This paean to New York’s favorite mayor is told against the stranglehold of backroom corruption (“Politics and poker / politics and poker / Shuffle up the cards / and find the joker”).
“Hamilton” — Of course. The current smash hit deals honestly, excitedly with the diverse group of immigrants who founded this country and the title character’s public triumphs and private weaknesses (“Who lives / who dies / Will they tell your story?”).
“1776” — Another Founding Fathers tale, this time about personal antagonisms amid the origin of the Declaration of Independence (“Though the shell may belong to Great Britain / The eagle inside belongs to us”).
“Evita” — Senorita Peron uses her romantic appeal, beauty and position to push herself ahead as First Lady (“Don’t cry for me Argentina / The truth is I never left you”).
“Cabaret” — German fascism hovers over dysfunctional love stories (“Oh Fatherland, Fatherland, show us the sign / Your children have waited to see / The morning will come when the world is mine / Tomorrow belongs to me”).
As in those shows, history gives weight and meaning to Billy’s personal story, not more tellingly than when policemen, strikers and ballet children intertwine. Integrating the strike and its effect on workers with Billy’s escaping into a more rarefied world, means his leaving family and friends.
Encouraged by the local (the setting is Durham) dance teacher, Billy, against all odds, fights for his dream of becoming a member of the Royal Ballet Company.
Prejudices dog Billy’s dreams. In “Expressing Yourself,” his best friend, Michael, dresses in female clothes and encourages Billy to do the same. But, as Billy says, “Just because I like ballet, doesn’t mean I’m a pouf.”
Expressing oneself is one of several themes, along with the relationships between fathers and sons, choosing life over death, the powers of art, community and solidarity (“The ground is empty and cold as hell,” sing the miners. “But we all go together when we go”).
Two boys alternate the title role. At the performance caught, Taven Blanke was a blazing Billy, expertly, touchingly, singing, dancing and acting. Excellent also are Sean Hayden as the doubtful, loving Dad, Barbara Marineau as the lively Grandma, Michelle Aravena as the sympathetic dance teacher, Gabriel Sidney Brown as Billy’s tough brother, Jon Martens as the extraverted Michael, Rachel Rhodes-Devey as Billy’s dead Mum, sparking tears, and a striking ensemble.
Director Gabriel Barre keeps the pace going of this long show, although his cockamamie idea of having kids and adults appear on stage before the piece begins is pointless (who are these people?).
Walt Spangler’s scenic design helps the evening’s flow, and Marc Kimelman’s lovely and amusing choreography somehow seems to enlarge the Goodspeed stage. As usual, Michael O’Flaherty’s music direction is flawless.
Contrast that with “An American in Paris” at Westchester Broadway Theater. Despite its magnificent Gershwin score, it misses opportunities. Taking place just after World War II, the show has a libretto by Craig Lucas, an insubstantial one at that. The idea of bringing post-Nazi joie de vivre to the French is hardly touched.
But, with such songs as “I Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love, “Shall We Dance” and “But Not For Me,” as another song goes, “Who Cares?” as directed and expansively choreographed by Richard Stafford, the show is the dinner theater’s dessert (outdoing the peach melba), despite a wayward sound system. Still, the production can’t overcome the weakness of the libretto, the one element that all the musicals mentioned above are particularly strong in.
Now we’re left to wonder what our composers and librettists will make of a perhaps forthcoming political show: “Trump: The Musical.” Time will tell. Can’t wait.
Norwalk resident David Rosenberg’s column on the local theater scene appears monthly.