Entertainment

Rich 'Billy Elliot' dances right out

Some feelings are so big they have to be sung, rather than spoken. Some surges of energy are so potent they have to be danced right out of the body. This is one of the main themes of "Billy Elliot The Musical," and the proof that it's true can be seen eight times a week through Jan. 30 at Ovens Auditorium.

When Lee Hall said he preferred this stage version to the Oscar-nominated film, which he also wrote, I thought he might be adhering to the typical promotional line. But this adaptation retains the grit and hard-edged politics of the 2000 movie and adds a grandeur to the story that fits it just as well.

The fantasy where Billy dances with an older vision of himself, soaring aloft to "Swan Lake," might not have worked in the art-house movie; here, it sets hearts pounding. The anthems of the coal miners out on strike could have sounded hokey onscreen; here, they make us want to roar our support.

The play's story line follows the film's. Billy (Michael Dameski on Thursday night) stumbles into a ballet class taught by sardonic Mrs. Wilkinson (Faith Prince). The motherless boy, raised by a gruffly loving father (Rich Hebert), discovers that dance is both his greatest talent and deepest passion.

Dad, Billy's brother Tony (Jeff Kready) and their fellow coal miners in northern England strike to protest the economic cutbacks of prime minister Margaret Thatcher. (The play's two acts are set in 1984 and 1985.) No one has time to encourage Billy's dream, especially when it seems odd and unmanly.

Elton John was reportedly so moved by the film that he pursued Hall and director Stephen Daldry until they agreed to collaborate with him on the musical. It inspired his finest body of songs in decades: rousing, touching, humorous, angry, never mawkish.

Choreographer Peter Darling, who vastly expands on his work for the movie, matches those moods and adds some of his own. He and Daldry use a wide range of adult performers; this is the first time I remember a musical with so many graying, balding, stocky or seedy-looking folks, yet each can dance as needed. Perhaps the idea is that all of us have an artist inside: The big ensemble number "Solidarity" intertwines burly miners and rugged cops and a corps of female ballet students, suggesting they might have more in common than they'd imagine.

Supporting actors sketch characters quickly. We remember Hebert's baffled kindness, Kready's zealotry, Patti Perkins' rude feistiness as Bill's grandma, Beverly Ward's tenderness as his mom and Griffin Birney's goofy charm as his cross-dressing friend. Prince, wise and warm, is on target.

Dameski looked as if sparks might fly from his fingertips. He sang plaintively yet firmly, danced with a fine line and with manic energy, and acted with unsentimental dignity. The idea that this tour uses five Billys, all reputedly this good, boggles the mind.

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