Arts Desk

Billy Elliot at the Kennedy Center, Reviewed

Have you wished Maggie Thatcher a merry Christmas yet this holiday season? No? Well, humbug. You must be an American Democrat who’s never seen the musical Billy Elliot. And you might want to consider doing something about that.

Do something about the seeing Billy Elliot part, not the American Democrat part, or the part about sending holiday greetings to an octogenarian former British prime minister.
Billy Elliot, a musical adaptation of Stephen Daldry’s 2000 film, is in residence at the Kennedy Center through Jan. 15, but don’t let the holiday sweet-spot in the theatrical calendar fool you into thinking the show about a blue-collar boy who longs to be a ballet dancer is fluff family entertainment. This is a musical that relies on abstract narratives to tell a story, labor movements to forward the plot, and a giant Maggie Thatcher puppet for the big song and dance number. Actual refrain: "Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher/We all celebrate today/'Cause it's one day closer to your death."

Cheery stuff, eh?

It was Elton John who first approached screenwriter Lee Hall with the idea for a musical. The theatrical adaptation opened in London in 2005. Four years later, the New York production won the Tony Award for best musical. The show is set to close Jan. 8 after a solid three-year run. The national tour launched in October 2010, and took its merry old time getting to D.C. But it was worth the wait to have the show home at the Opera House for the holidays.

Billy Elliot hardly looks road weary. That’s largely due to the boundless energy of the four adolescent boys who take turns in the staring role. As is often the case on tours, the supporting actors are a bit subpar to their Broadway peers, and the Kennedy Center tech team is facing its usual challenges balancing vocals and the pit orchestra. But theatrically, there are actually a few improvements. Simpler rolling sets signify the Elliots' house, requiring a bit more imagination from the audience. The over-the-top cross-dressing tap scene no longer features 20-foot-tall dancing mannequins. (Thank God.) And the Christmas party scene at the union hall is more convincing now that the set designers have a smaller budget to play with.

J.P. Viernes (my very charming Billy on Dec. 21) is as good a child actor as you will ever see, and plays Billy without precocious pretense. He’s thoroughly believable as a frustrated kid who infuriates his father by skipping out of his boxing class to take ballet. His mum’s been dead for years, and his father and brother are too busy protesting the privatization of coal mines to pay him much mind. When Billy’s banned from dancing, the quasi-dream sequence that follows shows just how far theater has evolved since the days of Oklahoma and Agnes de Mille. Punk guitar chords channel The Clash as Billy takes his anger out of the floor. Tap shoes replace ballet slippers, riot police replace farmhands.

There’s a lot going on in this musical, but fundamentally, Billy is a story about family. What makes it great family theater, as opposed to family entertainment, is that it’s never sentimental. Just when the show gets poignant, someone starts throwing punches. Mature themes—including sexuality, class, and socialism—are woven in such that a parent can discuss as much or as little as they wish. It’s unfortunate that the Kennedy Center is recommending the show for ages 12 and up; the 6-year-old in front of me was sporting a mohawk and totally engrossed. Grandma appeared to be having a great time too.

That’s not to say you need a kid in tow to enjoy Billy Elliot. But if you happen to have a spare $100 and nephew who can sit still for two hours, grab him and go. You just might have to explain why Billy’s best friend likes wearing dresses. But that will be easy compared to explaining to your sister why the kid came home singing “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher!”

Just tell her it’s catchy.

Billy Elliot the Musical is on stage at the Kennedy Center Opera House to Jan. 15. $25-$150.

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