The show must go on, Act 2
BACKSTAGE PASS - Lanz Leviste () - November 11, 2005 - 12:00am
I can’t really explain it, I haven’t got the words

It’s a feeling that you can’t control

I suppose it’s like forgetting, losing who you are

And at the same time something makes you whole
‘Electricity,’ lyrics by Lee Hall, music by Elton John

It’s the greatest musical of the decade. Billy Elliot the Musical at the Victoria Palace Theater, the astonishing, brilliant, exhilarating, and incredibly, ferociously moving London stage production is only one integrant in the sudden emergence of Hollywood on the West End this past summer, a trend that has already translated to both stage adaptations of famed motion pictures and paparazzi-hounded A-listers taking in their nightly curtain calls. Based on the eponymous 2000 film, what was next only to Almost Famous and Traffic as the best film of that year, the production brings back director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter Lee Hall, who this time wrote the libretto and the lyrics that Elton John set to music. Taking over the lead title role that introduced Jamie Bell are James Lomas, George Maguire and Liam Mower, three amazing performers that have barely hit puberty: they sing, dance and act as Billy, the fiery 12-year-old that aspired to become a ballet dancer in the midst of the miners’ strike of Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s.

Aesthetically, Hall’s book channels Billy Elliot’s unstable political climate much, much stronger than he did with the source film’s screenplay; it is immediately shocking how strongly the production’s didactic proclamations come across, with Hall drawing very linear parallels of the strike and the Thatcher administration with the struggles of a prepubescent child. Many of his songs are jaw-droppers in both their audacity and fervor: Act 2 opener "Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher" is a startlingly (and hilariously) offensive attack on the former Prime Minister as the miners "all celebrate today ‘cos it’s one day closer to (her) death; "Solidarity" is a blistering scuffle between the police and the miners. Billy Elliot the Musical never once tries to conceal its pro-Labour message, and almost utilizes itself as much as an admirably impassioned soapbox than as a piece of impeccable storytelling.

But the actual pertinent audacity stems from the ways Daldry confronts Billy and conveys his struggle. There are precise moments in every great stage musical that define it more than the entire production ever could in its entirety – both in song Seasons of Love in Rent, Old Man River in Show Boat, "Tell Me It’s Not True" in Blood Brothers, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" in Kiss Me Kate) and staging (Elphaba’s flight in Wicked, the helicopter landing in Miss Saigon). And yet the greatest are so cohesively brilliant that there isn’t a single one to determine; even movie musicals achieve such a feat, as in Singin’ in the Rain, with Gene Kelly’s iconic fantasy puddle-splashing scene and that Technicolor dream of a 20-minute sequence at the very end, to name a few. Daldry and his creative team elevate Billy Elliot to that latter echelon seamlessly: making use of song, choreography, light and an often stark stage in place of elaborate set pieces, he is able to introduce a gritty yet stirring humanity. When violent miners and police clashed with young girls through dance, when Billy read a letter from his deceased mother, when Billy performed a rousing ballet with his adult self and soon took flight, when Billy belted out "Electricity" in front of the Royal Ballet School’s admissions council, it occurred to me that this was the greatest musical of the past 10, or even more, years.

The musical also marks Elton John’s first undeniably successful score directly for the stage, after the mediocre pop adaptation of Verdi’s Aida in 2000. Deriving from traditional English folk to soaring pop, brassy Broadway to harsh protest songs, his versatility just matches the talent of his cast. Young Mower, who played Billy at both performances I saw, is a better dancer than singer, but when he lets loose, the results are astounding. But of the entire company, the most entertaining was Ryan Longbottom who plays Billy’s gay best friend Michael: apart from having some of the funniest and most profane lines (and this is a musical that treats its verbal liberties no-holds-barred), he is the star of the boogie-anthem Expressing Yourself, a hysterical disco ball cabaret romp.

Billy Elliot the Musical
is a production that trades in political correctness for realistic, intense human emotion; it is a tearjerker rightfully lacking in any sort of trite syrup. And despite its relatively stark set, not only is it the best and the greatest musical to come across in a very long while, but also the most epic.

I can’t say the same for Disney Theatrical and Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins which opened last winter at the Prince Edward Theater, actually much more of an adaptation of P.L. Travers’ books than the 1964 Disney film starring Julie Andrews. Publicized as a darker take on the popular nanny tale, it is at times awkward and disjointed, even arbitrary; scenes with animate statues and terrorizing dolls feel as if they were added simply for the musical to distinctly differentiate itself from the movie. New songs from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe hardly match the classics of the Sherman brothers, Temper, Temper especially leaving an awful aftertaste. Bob Crowley’s production design is clunky at best, and a meandering staging of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is simply unforgivable.

This is not to say, however, that the magic isn’t there: when Laura Michelle Kelly as Mary pulls that lamp from her magic bag, kids and adults alike can’t help but grin. The production is salvaged by a particularly wonderful second act. Gavin Lee, who as Bert provides a better cockney accent than Dick van Dyke ever could, walks across the proscenium and everyone gasps; Mary, in a poignant farewell, is lifted with her umbrella above and across the audience to even more wide-eyed exclamations. But the real magic in this stage adaptation missing in the Disney film is a poignant sense of affection among the characters reciprocated to the audience. Genuine and delicate in the ways Mary Poppins tickles heartstrings, this Mackintosh production is good, but still had the utmost potential to be great.

Another theater legend with a recent London opening was Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose The Woman in White premiered in the fall of last year at the Palace Theatre. Most notable about the production directed by Trevor Nunn is its revolutionary use of video projections in place of primary sets, which creates an initially thrilling cinematic sense of expansion and freedom. The novelty (and yes, it really just is a clever novelty that I truly hope does not grow into a trend) however quickly wears off, and The Woman in White is left with nothing but an overly familiar storyline and Lloyd Webber’s recycled score. Every song that isn’t downright terrible seems to be either Think of Me or All I Ask of You with a few notes and keys altered and added. The pseudo-sugar of I Believe My Heart is torturous to endure, almost as much as Count Fosco’s You Can Get Away with Anything; the portly Fosco, a role originated by Michael Crawford, is an all-too-exaggerated, overly stylized mess that can’t help but make you cringe till it hurts.

Another production to make you cringe – this time with the anguish of the American Dream gone awry – is Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at the Lyric Theater, arguably the greatest American play of the 20th century by one of its very best playwrights. After sweeping the Tonys in 1999, it transferred to the West End this summer (just a few months following Miller’s untimely death) with Tony winner Brian Dennehy reprising his role as the lovably pathetic Willy Loman, and a primarily Brit cast led by the superb Clare Higgins as wife Linda. Director Robert Falls makes powerful use of Mark Wendland’s cleverly simplistic and geometric set design and Michael Philippi’s austere lighting to visually portray Willy’s internal deterioration. Douglas Henshall and Mark Bazeley, who play Loman brothers Biff and Happy, provide thunderous performances, as does the remarkable Higgins, giving a one-two punch performance of sheer heart-shredding agony that that moment she pounds her fist on that dining table, the entire theater trembles with both fear and compassion. But it is Dennehy that completely overwhelms: as his downward spiral commences as soon as we see his silhouette, our relationship with Willy grows exponentially, first with love, then irritation, then anger, and finally total unrelenting pathos. This staging of Death of a Salesman is extraordinarily bleak and beautiful, so powerful it’s like a gunshot through the heart and then a sledgehammer pounding on it – and trust me, it’s one hell of a life-affirming feeling.

Apart from films and celebrities of the theater world making it to London, the real star power these past months came from movie stars (and tabloid fodder), red carpet-regulars ready for some artistic credibility on stage. While some fail (Val Kilmer was in the almost unbearable revival of The Postman Always Rings Twice), others succeed thanks to Lady Luck: Guys and Dolls at the Piccadilly Theater with Ewan McGregor and Jane Krakowski is one of the most venerable stage musicals of all time, and yet this production is able to make well-known numbers like Luck Be a Lady fresh and thrilling. Director Michael Grandage tones down the glitz of Broadway’s famously flashy show, presenting a slimier Manhattan as the stomping ground of Sky Masterson (McGregor). McGregor, as in Moulin Rouge, is a very able singer, but an especially skilled dancer; Rob Ashford’s choreography is absolutely electric, most evident during an all-out, rabble-rousing staging of Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.

As You Like It
, my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies next to The Taming of the Shrew, made its way to the Wyndham’s Theater with Sienna Miller in the supporting role of Celia to Helen McCrory’s Rosalind. In an interesting twist, director David Lan decided to relocate the Forest of Arden to chic 1940s France; the best friends sip café au lait and smoke cigs by the Seine, fawning over Orlando (Dominic West) and discussing their gender-bending plans. Miller glows and charms as the lovely Celia; she is a surprisingly capable comedienne, simultaneously graceful and hilarious, and possessing a luminous presence so intoxicating. I was similarly glad to see a comedian in Kevin Spacey, in what was his final production has artistic director of the Old Vic. Jerry Zaks’ adaptation of The Philadelphia Story has Spacey as playboy C.K. Dexter Haven, ex of high-society princess Tracy Lord (Jennifer Ehle) in the classic satire. Spacey evidently has fun in the role, exuding a dashing debonair charm, and Ehle is particularly marvelous in the role that Katherine Hepburn defined.

After a few weeks in London last August, taking in a dozen shows (I just had to see Les Mis and Blood Brothers again) and giving a number of standing ovations, I’ve learned that stargazers and discerning theatergoers alike can now enjoy a night at the theater. In March, Julia Roberts begins her 12-week limited engagement in Three Days of Rain, and to paraphrase Jacques in As You Like It, all the world’s a stage, but only Broadway can get Julia Roberts.
* * *
For comments, email me at lanz_gryffindor@yahoo.com.

AS YOU LIKE IT BILLY BILLY ELLIOT BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL BLOOD BROTHERS ELTON JOHN MUSICAL PRODUCTION STAGE THEATER
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