Sorry, it has taken so long to review this one. Normally, I’m very prompt; reviews I post here are often published the day after opening night. But these particular tickets were a Christmas present, bought not for opening night, but for when better seats were available. As in this past Tuesday.
Before sizing up its gay content, let me review the show first in more general terms. Let me say right up front that I was not quite as gaga about it as some reviewers, famously the Daily Telegraph's critic who described it as “the greatest British musical I have ever seen”. But there is a lot that appeals here - a heart-warming story that follows a familiar trajectory, one that brings out the cheering-for-the-little guy syndrome in all of us. Then of course there are the much-praised virtuoso performances from the junior cast members, particularly from Billy himself, a part requiring incredible vigour and élan. It’s a feel-good show par excellence.
In many ways this show is a star-vehicle for a twelve year old kid. The part of Billy Elliot himself is hugely demanding, but done well it can - and does - bring the house down. The Toronto production features four Billy’s in rotation, all reportedly excellent. The one I saw, Myles Erlick (pictured below) seemed perfect for the part. He shone in two numbers in particular. In the Angry Dance (a video of this number's London production is shown below.) Billy dances his heart out in a display of early-teen angst, played against a visually powerful backdrop of striking miners and police in riot gear trying to contain them. It’s Toronto’s G20 as art, and it works beautifully. The second stunning moment occurs when Billy performs a pas de deux from Swan Lake - a duet with his older self, which later morphs in to a winning aerial ballet. It’s wonderful stage-craft.
So what’s gay about all this? Well Elton John wrote the score and David Furnish is the Executive Producer. for starters.
And then there’s the gay subplot that involves Michael (nicely played here by Dillon Stevens, also pictured below), Billy’s pint-size trans friend who is unabashedly exploring gender issues. He likes to wear his mom’s clothes, just like his dad, he says. He is quite camp (see the first video clip below). After one cross dressing episode in which both boys partake, Michael tells Billy he has feelings for him, then plants a kiss on his cheek. Billy responds “I like ballet but I’m not gay” It’s quite touching.
Other gay content: the Ballet from Swan Lake performed as a male duet speaks to gender-bending issues too. This version recalls, but does not copy, the gender bending in the film version which saw the adult Billy dancing the lead in an all-male Swan Lake (with the very gay Matthew Bourne Company providing the cast of male ballerinas.) But honestly this version, where Billy dances through clouds of dry ice, eventually becoming air-borne and sailing sublimely above the stage in the most lyrical manner imaginable, is a triumph that transcends the gender issues which it raises.
But of course gender issues and what society expects of the male species form the crux of the story. Billy’s dad, who has channelled his son into learning boxing, presumably because it’s manly, is shocked by his son’s interest in ballet. Billy hides his interest at first because he’s scared of his family’s reaction. They don’t want him to be seen as a “poof, a “fruit”, someone as "queer as Rudolf Nureyev", they say. Ballet is for girls. Billy disagrees and resolution of these gender issues consumes much of the show’s length. That they are finally resolved by Billy triumphing at his art, with the family - and Michael - becoming ardent Billy supporters is a key element to the show’s success.
Symbolically, the entire cast, male and female, wears tutus for the curtain call. It's a touching show of support for those defying tradional identities.
The bottom line? It’s fascinating to see gender issues involving twelve-year olds played out in the context of a big Broadway-style show. Overall it took me a while to warm up up to the show. By intermission, though, I was won over. Would I recommend the show? Absolutely. Two thumbs up!
After the show, there was a little treat. This particular performance was a benefit, and as a way of raising dollars for a good cause, the young actors playing Billy and Michael were in a corner of the lobby after the show, where, for a few dollars, you could have your photo taken with the pint-sized stars. Of course we went for it. The results are below.
Left to right my partner Meirion, Michael (Dillon Stevens), me and Billy Elliot himself (Myles Erlick).