Why 'Billy Elliot' was better as a film

The Tony Award-winning musical, playing at the Paramount, tries to be too spunky and light in tone, losing the despair and confusion that made the film great. Could Elton John's beloved music be part of the problem?

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Lex Ishimoto performs 'Angry Dance' in 'Billy Elliot.'

The Tony Award-winning musical, playing at the Paramount, tries to be too spunky and light in tone, losing the despair and confusion that made the film great. Could Elton John's beloved music be part of the problem?

The film “Billy Elliot” is a masterpiece of storytelling economy. Alongside its most famous thread — a young boy’s discovery of ballet — Lee Hall portrayed the impotent rage of a redundant working-class population (it’s set during the year-long strike of the British National Union of Mineworkers), the insularity and conformity of small-town England (this is Geordie territory, a Northern region with its own distinct Anglo-Saxon dialect) and the choking shame of hidden secrets and public losses (Billy’s friend Michael hides his homosexuality; Billy’s father is nearly mute for being both jobless and spouse-less after his wife’s early death).

It’s also great from the moment it begins. Even before he discovers dance, crinkly-nosed actor Jamie Bell (as Billy) shines like the blue sky over the smoke-darkened bricks and stupid, hot-headed eruptions going on around him. He’s the classic, loveable truant who runs around “like a right twat” ignoring dumb restrictions and deftly breaking societal rules. When he achieves greatness, he inspires his whole family and town to keep standing strong.

The original creative team from the film (director Stephen Daldry, writer Lee Hall and choreographer Peter Darling) was at the helm of the stage adaptation, which debuted in London’s West End in 2005 and on Broadway in 2008, and won Best Musical awards in both locations. If anyone’s going to wedge 15 songs into that tightly woven plot, you want those original visionaries to be part of it.

And so they were, keeping true to the full plotline of the film in a deft, creative manner, mashing the kids and adults into close quarters from the start of the show so as to pave the way for a continuous weaving of miners, cops, and ballet kids inside a charming set centered around a drafty room in a village hall. To top it off, they went with the music of Sir Elton John — indomitable, British, open about his struggles with his own dad, hugely successful as tunesmith for “The Lion King."

Well, it doesn’t get any better than that. Or does it?

On Wednesday, the opening night of the production’s two-week Seattle run at The Paramount Theatre, crowds cheered and swooned from the opening curtain to the "company celebration" romp at the end. Behind me, there was a clutch of tear-streaked faces when the lights came up. Yet my date and I, avid theatergoers and fans of the film, were both as dark and disappointed as two lumps of cold black coal.

Something rather aggravating happened to “Billy Elliot” on its way to the stage: It jettisoned its core interpersonal struggles and became a portrait of brash, overflowing, unilateral defiance. Attitude and spunk are slathered across every character now. In the first scene, the supposedly dour Dad (Rich Hebert) is wearing an apron with fake boobs on it, shimmying as he cooks breakfast. (He beats up on himself later because he burns the food — not because he’s insanely lost and depressed.) Grandma (Patti Perkins) has gone from a soft, senile pillow to a crass, rump-shaking mama who gives the world the finger as her parting gesture.

Mrs. Wilkinson (Faith Prince), formerly listless and cynical, now yells “Hit It!” as she breaks into razzle-dazzle numbers with her over-the-top grotesque and charmless students. In her quieter modes she speaks Yoda-talk to Billy, espousing epithets such as “Dancing is as much about discovering things about yourself as it is about discovering things about dancing.” Most disappointing, there is now a very weird disconnect with Billy — when she hears Billy recite his mum’s letter from memory, she breaks into a feverish song-and-dance number right afterwords — which keeps the narrative from deepening where it most needs to.

There’s still Michael (Griffin Birney), who played like Billy’s meek, beautiful shadow in the film. Here, Michael is adorable, not beautiful. And he’s much younger, or at least smaller, so his gay desires look like play. He and Billy get to live out a fantasy together, in a number called “Expressing Yourself,” that makes their Durham Coalfield neighborhood look like something out of a Bette Midler review.

Why such desperation to keep the tone light? Is this really the same crew that painted despair and confusion so brilliantly in the film? Why is there no buildup to the answering of prayers? What is wrong here??

Elton John’s simple, predictable tunes may be the culprit. His music here is without complexity or depth, so all manner of guns have been brought in to keep some buoyancy and energy alive. Some of the anthems have likeable melodies (“The Stars Look Down,” “Solidarity”) but there are non-stop antics throughout, ever escalating, ever more confusing. Even the “Born to Boogie” paean to T. Rex, the glam-rock group whose music ignited the film, only serves to remind of the difference between John’s efficient Broadway tone and the hip rockabilly sound of the T. Rex song. When bits of English pantomime are introduced into the show — during a Christmas pageant in Act II — it’s the first palatable way that’s been found to amp up the energy.

The regional flavor of the film was unflinching (there were subtitled versions for international showings), but now it’s watered way down, if not completely ignored. After eight years of sell-out performances, has the figure of Billy Elliot now transmuted into a universally adopted symbol for boyish survival?

Here in Seattle, the main character is played by Lex Ishimoto, a California hip-hop dancer whose body and expressions had nothing rural-British in them. He did attempt a British accent, however — if not a Geordie one. The sparkling Faith Prince, in the role of Mrs. Wilkinson, had a nice accent, but it came and went. Several supporting actors were discernibly English, but in general the distinctive diction was annoyingly exploited for gags and energetic bursts.  “Oy!” “Fat bah-stads!”

The choreography also lost its geographical distinction. Gone is the furious step dance — such a powerful UK locator. Now we have tap dancing, and back handsprings, and hands that keep making boxy shapes for some reason. Sometimes elegiac, sometimes exciting, never very specific. Billy’s dance solos, even so, are still much preferable to most of the songs.

The word “Disney-fied” gets at the feel of the sweetening and antic-ization that “Billy Elliot” feels to have received. But it wouldn’t be quite accurate, because Disney wasn’t involved here. And maybe it’s a case of weighing expectations, but the last Disney release I saw, “Gnomeo and Juliet,” which also featured the songs of Elton John, was actually a lot more fun than this.

If you go: "Billy Elliot," through April 3, Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle. Tickets start at $25.50 and are available at the box office, by phone (877-784-4849), or online.


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