December 22, 2011 at 10:59 am EDT | by Patrick Folliard
‘Billy’ the kid

‘Billy Elliot the Musical’
Through Jan. 15
The Kennedy Center

Lex Ishimoto as Billy (flying) with Maximilien A. Baud playing the character as an adult in ‘Billy Elliot the Musical,’ on the boards now at the Kennedy Center. (Photo by Michael Brosilow; courtesy the Kennedy Center)

When promoting “Billy Elliot the Musical,” Sir Elton John routinely explains his attachment to the show’s title character.

During a presentation of the film version (on which the musical is based) at Cannes in 2000, the gay superstar recognized aspects of his own life reflected on the screen. Like Billy, a small town boy who follows his dream to dance ballet despite his miner father’s initial misgivings, John’s passion for rock n’ roll was met with equal reservations by his own father.

John so loved the film that he agreed to write the music for the stage adaptation. Directed by Stephen Daldry, the show was a hit when it premiered in London’s West End in 2005 and triumphed on Broadway three years later, earning a truckload of awards along the way. And now a national tour of “Billy” has come to the Kennedy Center Opera House where it will remain through mid-January.

Set in northern England during the bleak UK miners’ strike of 1984-‘85, the action begins when 11-year-old Billy (Lex Ishimoto) ditches after-school boxing lessons for an all girls’ ballet class where he discovers his talent and passion for dance. Billy keeps coming back and even after his family’s remonstrations he continues attending in secret.

Billy’s ballsy ballet teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (the terrific Leah Hocking), a chain smoker in hot pink leg warmers, recognizes her sole male student’s ability and believes in his future. She also sees the writing on the wall: their small mining town is dying and dancing is Billy’s only ticket out.

Librettist and lyricist Lee Hall has pretty much stacked the odds against dance crazy Billy: His loving mother is dead; his father (Rich Hebert) and older brother Tony (Cullen R. Titmas), also a miner, are disdainful of the arts, specifically one that requires boys to wear tights (though Billy typically dances in gym shorts). Luckily, the boy finds some respite in his dotty grandmother (Cynthia Darlow), as well as the occasional visit from his dead mother’s sad sack apparition (identifiable by particularly bland street clothes and bad Princess Diana wig) who occasionally wanders on stage, says or sings a few kind words, then makes a hasty exit.

There’s also Billy’s loyal friend Michael (Ben Cook) — a self-described “poof” — who likes to dress up in his mother’s clothes. After persuading Billy to don a skirt too, their private little drag show explodes into “Expressing Yourself,” a glittery production number with the two boys tapping their hearts out in silver heels backed by a collection of 10-foot dancing dresses.

Despite Elton John’s ardor for the source material, this score is not his most memorable work. But what is unforgettable about the show is Billy’s dancing (thrillingly choreographed by Peter Darling). He unrealistically transforms from awkward novice to the prince of pirouettes in a matter of weeks, but who’s counting? Ishimoto (who performed on press night and shares the demanding role with four other young dancers) sings and acts OK, but he dances phenomenally: Whether back flipping off a table and tap/jump roping in “Born to Boogie” or leading the show’s huge cast in “Company Celebration,” a spirited dancing curtain call, he’s virtually flawless. The second acts’ gorgeous, dreamy Swan Lake sequence pairs Billy with his older self (beautifully danced by Maximilien A. Baud) and he literally soars high above the stage.

At more than three hours, it’s a long evening. Hall’s book is peppered with F-bombs and groan-worthy, cornball humor. Sometimes the show strains to connect the ongoing strike with dance. Case in point: a well-choreographed but improbable number (“Solidarity”) involving miners, cops and pubescent ballerinas dancing together in the same small space.

In the end, Billy’s family and the community get behind the young dancer. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (represented here in monstrous effigy at the miners’ Christmas party) has broken the union, destroying their way of life. It’s time to make way for new dreams.

Though hardly perfect, this “Billy Elliot the Musical” has a lot of glitz, grit and heart going for it.

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