Saturday, December 13, 2008
Grounding Billy Elliot
I liked Billy Elliot, now playing at Broadway's Imperial Theatre. I can't say I was enraptured with it, however. And this morning I read two articles that shared my dissatisfaction: One, by Roger Kimball, in The Wall Street Journal, and the other, by Charles Isherwood, in The New York Times.
The Journal piece, "A Clumsy Mix of Art and Politics," tells you exactly where it stands, and pretty much continues WSJ critic Terry Teachout's pan, a blot on a landscape of otherwise good-to-ecstatic reviews of the show, which has been doing brisk business. Right-wingers at the Journal and the New Criterion, where Kimball hails from, were never going to approve of a Thatcher-bashing show. Nor did I--not because of the politics, but because of the obvious, crowd-pleasing, West End way in which the politics are presented. The movie, which Kimball likes, is more subtle, and makes the same points without resorting to inflatables, dress-ups, unmemorable music, and all that stage jazz. On film, the director, Stephen Daldry, and the screenwriter/book writeer/lyricist, Lee Hall, work in a naturalist vein; on stage, the two have been infected by razzle-dazzle, changing, with a thud, Billy Elliot to Billy Elliot: The Musical. (As so often happens when modest movies become immodest musicals, they pretty much run out of movie story by the close of Act I, and vamp for Act II to bring the show up to a butt-tugging three hours.)
Kimball has one beef in particular: "Billy soars to the ceiling courtesy of a line tethered to his belt. It's a pointless episode, rendered all the more pointless by the quantities of colored dry-ice fog that is wafted across the stage. It was the release not of the human spirit but of stage pyrotechnics." Isherwood's piece is about nothing but the climax of that dream ballet staging, which is one of the high points of the show. A desire to fly, to soar, to transcend is an important part of the piece, but the literalization of the act is clumsily achieved; in our dreams, we don't have someone attach ourselves to a hoist, even our imagined older self, and if the stage technicians couldn't figure out a way to get him into harness less clunkily I would have cut it. Moreover, it's the spectacle of the flying itself, a tacky button to an otherwise inspiring sequence. Even in the cheap seats at the back of the mezzanine, we get it, well before we're obliged to see it: Billy wants to fly. "It epitomizes the aesthetic conflict running through the production that keeps this very good musical from becoming a wholly great one, at least in my view," Isherwood writes.
With questions of art and politics emerging in the same weekend, in two important papers (two of the few important papers left), the Billy backlash is on. I liked the show, within reason, and have no need to pile it. "My" Billy, Trent Kowalik, was terrific. (One of the other two who share the role, David Alvarez, is pictured.) But I agree with Isherwood's conclusion: "Billy Elliot is a small, heartfelt and keenly observed musical that intermittently feels the need to act like a loud, splashy, sock-it-to-’em crowd pleaser." It forgets the simple lesson of the 2000 movie, which held up well when I caught it on cable recently: Less is more.