By: Ali Goldstein
Amidst an economy bleaker than these grey winter skies, the story of Billy Elliot might be the perfect antidote to our times. Now on stage at The Kennedy Center, Billy Elliot tells the story of a young boy who dreams of being a dancer during the 1984 coal strikes in northern England. As the men of the town line up on the picket line and brave the British police, ballet was viewed as frivolous at best, and at worst dangerously different. Graceful and creative, Billy begins the story as an outcast ridiculed to the fringes of his town where men are men and women are women — and men, to say the least, don’t do ballet.
The audience believes in Billy’s potential from the second he accidentally wanders into a ballet class. The truly challenging — and inspirational — transformation in the story is that of the townspeople who go from ridiculing Billy to uniting to stand behind him. Told with catchy tunes and starring the most adorably talented tween you’ll ever meet, Billy Elliot is an authentic and heartwarming reminder that amidst tough times we have to be each other’s hope.
Much of the musical’s resonance drives from Billy’s point-of-view. Rooted in his voice and hopes, the story captures the true complexity of his transformation. The noise of the coal strike and political drama is framed through Billy’s more personal heartbreak: the recent death of his mother and his alienation from his father. Overshadowed by the town and times in which he’s growing up, Billy never once assumes that he will be a ballerina. This is what makes Billy Elliot heartwarming and not just insistently cheerful: his story feels incredibly real.
For those of us whose childhood roots are somehow tangled in one dying industry or another, Billy’s original wariness of ballet seems entirely true. It frees him, but it’s also one more thing he doesn’t quite understand. He inhabits a world of pressing material concern where work singularly means mining: he’s never quite sure how ballet stacks up. It’s only once his town — and more specifically his father — believe in him that he gives himself fully to the dream.
Billy’s father, played by Broadway veteran Rich Hebert, is also a standout. His relationship with Billy is at the heart of the musical. The story isn’t so much about Billy’s transformation to dancer as the father’s and son’s attempts to understand each other. Billy’s dad will occasionally break your heart as he fumbles to do what’s best for the family he loves too much after his wife’s death. He wants to be a hero for his older son on the picket lines and give Billy the future he deserves. Hebert pitch-perfectly captures just how complicated and nearly impossible is a father’s love.
There’s a reason that Billy Elliot continues to capture hearts around the world. It’s a story that captures the complication and heartbreak of transformation, of relying on your roots to leave them. And it’s also about a town that comes together to believe in something different than themselves. Add a moving score and inspiring twelve-year-old dancers, and it’s hard not to be swept up in the tale of one town’s unlikely path to hope.
Billy Elliot:The Musical is on stage through January 15th at The Kennedy Center. TICKETS AND DETAILS HERE.