DES MOINES — Everything you’ve heard about the dance in “Billy Elliot the Musical” is true. It is dynamic and dazzling beyond belief — especially when shooting out of the feet and fingers of a 13-year-old boy.
More than 2,000 cheering audience members rose to their feet before the lights dimmed Tuesday night at the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines. The national touring show continues through Sunday afternoon and evening. (For details, go to Civiccenter.org)
The beauty of this production, which swept up 10 Tony Awards in 2009 and 81 awards worldwide, is the way you’re barely aware the music and auxiliary choreography are even there. Obviously, you know when Billy is dancing, because it’s so mind-blowing, but everything else just seems to spring organically from the moment and movement.
Elton John’s much-lauded music is so powerful, so strong, so visceral that it just seems to be a natural extension of the story’s many layers of turmoil. The same goes for Peter Darling’s brilliant choreography.
The action, loosely based on the rise of British dance star Peter O’Brien, is set in Northern England in 1984. The region is embroiled in a bitter, sometimes violent strike by coal miners facing down Margaret Thatcher’s efforts to destroy their union.
It’s a hardscrabble life in Billy’s village, where the men work in the mine while the boys lace up their boxing gloves and the girls lace up their ballet slippers after school. Billy’s life changes forever when he stumbles into a dance class one day and reluctantly starts learning the steps, soon leaping into a league of his own.
Completely conflicted about his growing love of the art, he tries to hide his talent from his gruff father and explosive brother. The women in 11-year-old Billy’s life provide the show’s tender moments, as the dotty grandmother who lives with him wistfully recalls her love of dancing with the husband she never loved, and a letter from his deceased mother encourages him to follow his heart.
His dance teacher secretly arranges an audition with the Royal Ballet School, but escalating violence between the miners and the riot police puts an end to that dream — compounded by the furious reaction of Billy’s father, brother and their friends.
This leads to the emotional climax of Act I, when Billy releases his frustration in “Angry Dance,” an explosive tap tour de force to a shattering rock beat as Billy flings himself against the scenery and the riot police. In an earlier Gazette interview, assistant choreographer Mary Giattino describes it perfectly: “His body is in nervous breakdown mode onstage, with tap shoes on.”
Three boys alternate performances as Billy and a fourth is being rotated into the role. Zach Manske, 13, from Woodbury, Minn., played Billy on opening night, displaying a maturity of form and style well beyond his years. His voice, however, is changing, meaning he couldn’t really hit the high notes and most likely will soon age out of the role.
With so many bright spots in the show, from the ragtag hometown troupe of tutus to the powerful men in the ensemble, several performances stand out. Cameron Clifford was every inch effervescent as Billy’s best friend, the no-so-secretly cross-dressing Michael. Job Christenson lurks in the background of most dance scenes as rehearsal pianist Mr. Braithwaite, but gets to unleash his inner diva bit by bit.
The most glorious moment of the show is the gorgeous pas de deux Billy performs with his older self to the soul-stirring drama of “Swan Lake.” As if the sheer beauty of the ballet wasn’t enough, it builds to a stunning aerial climax that leaves the audience as breathless as Billy’s father.
The show, embraced by audiences around the world, is not flawless, however. Some moments seem contrived and the humor forced, from a tacky, unlikely apron worn by Billy’s father to the grandmother’s penchant for flipping people off, a couple of groin punches and some particularly saucy language by the tween boys and girls. Those touches of gratuitous coarseness and profanity knocked the show down a couple notches from the high pedestal of my expectations. Cheap laughs are beneath the dignity and artistry of this show.
However, there’s no denying the absolutely spectacular dancing, which is really what the show is all about.