by Erin Kirkland
“Everyone is different; it’s the natural state. It’s the facts, it’s plain to see. The world’s gray enough without making it worse; what we need is individuality.” ~Expressing Yourself, Billy Elliot the Musical
What tween or teen hasn’t looked in the mirror and been confused by who stares back? I certainly was, and I can be pretty certain my 12 year-old is about to join the party of near-adolescent-fueled emotional angst.
Couple this developmental milestone, however, with the pain of losing a parent and the double stress of violent unrest in one’s community due to the loss of livelihood, and you’ve got a set stage for conflict. Oh, and let’s add the desire to dance in the ballet, despite a family’s adamant opposition and a teacher’s equally-determined support. What’s a kid to do?
That’s Billy Elliot the Musical, showing through Sunday at the Alaska Center for Performing Arts and brought to Alaska by the Ancorage Concert Association. Somehow spanning the yawning chasm between childhood and adolescence with enough vigor to cause a clenched fist or two in the crowd, yet retaining the tenderness of a little boy missing his mum, Billy Elliot is a masterful production to which parents of tweens and teens should rush, particularly those with boys.
Starring a professional cast that includes local dancers from Alaska Dance Theatre, Billy Elliot the Musical is not an easy show to see, but one that captures beautifully the conflict between parents and children, workers and government, and the individual identity of each.
The film Billy Elliot was released in 2000, set during the 1984-85 denationalization of the coal industry by then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher. It’s a brief but powerful history lesson to watch firsthand the gritty protesting of miners afraid of losing what had been a booming post World War II industry. Billy’s father and older brother join the strike in solidarity, and Billy, whose mother died a few years prior, is part of the local boxing club (to which all good blue-collar boys belong). He hates it, as does his best buddy Michael (who is far more open about his own identity), and the two do their best to refrain from socking each other’s lights out.
Billy is asked to stay longer one day, and is instructed to turn in the keys to a Miss Wilkinson, the local ballet teacher tasked with turning a bunch of giggling girls into young ladies of the dance. Billy is fascinated by their movements, joins in, and immediately falls under the spell of Wilkinson who convinces him to join the class, recognizing right away his potential.
Dad, meanwhile, doesn’t like this one bit, and bans Billy from participating. Miss Wilkinson resists, Billy continues practicing for an audition at the Royal Ballet School, and the coal miners become increasingly agitated, leading to anger all the way ’round. The only thing that ultimately changes anyone’s mind about Billy dancing comes after a beautiful moment involving a fictional grown-up Billy and the score of Swan Lake.
Themes of young adolescence run deep in the performance, from the Anger Dance by Billy, played well by Bradon King, to the oh-so-lovely singing of The Letter, a joint effort by Billy, Wilkinson, and his dead mother.
What resonates time after time, however, is the circular difficulty of Billy to figure out who he is now, and translate that into who he will become, later. It’s frightening, it’s exhilarating, and it’s exactly what every youngster age 12 and up (and his or her parents) should see. We’ve all been there, and our children will be going there, and receiving the messaging purely, simply, and in musical form was one of the most effective ways I could finally begin to understand how difficult it is to be simply oneself. Nothing more, nothing less.
Billy Elliot the Musical runs through February 19 (Sunday), and tickets are still very much available for both the 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. performances. While the price of a show of this caliber is not always cheap ($60 and up), the investment is worth every hard-earned pence.
NOTE: The show is recommended for ages 12 and up. I concur, for several reasons. One, language is rich in F-bombs and such. Second, and more important, the content is complex and difficult for younger kids to grasp. Boring, even. Ushers will offer a warning as you enter the concert hall, so be ready.