TAMPA — Billy Elliot the Musical, which had its official opening Friday at the Straz Center, includes one of the best dance numbers you'll ever see. It's called Solidarity and comes soon after Billy, the 12-year-old son of an English coal miner, discovers he has a gift for ballet. Needless to say, this has not gone down well with his working-class father and older brother, both out on strike against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's effort to destroy the miners union.
Billy skips boxing class for ballet, and he's just finishing a lesson in the school auditorium when one of the magical moments of musical theater happens about halfway through Act 1. Little girls in tutus — plus Billy in shorts and polo shirt — do arabesques and pirouettes among surging lines of riot police and striking miners, whose black-booted, athletic leaps and ballet positions are strangely graceful. The stage swarms with the interweaving of these contrasting figures to the miners' chorus of "Solidarity, solidarity/Solidarity forever." Director Stephen Daldry and choreographer Peter Darling can take a lot of satisfaction in knowing they were responsible for this memorable piece of staging.
The hard-driving music for Solidarity is by Elton John (with some deft touches of chirpy minimalism a la Philip Glass in the orchestration of Martin Koch). John has now composed three Broadway musicals, and while Billy Elliot doesn't have the infectious pop tunes of his scores for The Lion King and Aida, he has done an impressively humble job of writing music that serves the book by Lee Hall (who also wrote lyrics) and pays tribute to the folk music of northeast England. Highlights include Billy's dad, played by Rich Hebert, dropping his truculent pride to sing the moody miner's ballad, Deep Into the Ground, and the savage pantomime, Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher.
Giuseppe Bausilio played Billy on Friday (he and three other boys rotate in the role), and his performance not only displayed top-notch technique and a beautiful balletic line, but he also brought wrenching emotion to the Angry Dance that brings down the Act 1 curtain. His dream ballet with Older Billy (Maximilien A. Baud) is an exhilarating high, though it must be said that the Swan Lake homage is even more powerful in the film where it comes at the end of the story.
Sexual politics has a part in Billy Elliot in the person of Billy's cross-dressing pal, Michael, played by Griffin Birney on Friday. Unlike Billy, who declares he is no "poof" (derogatory British slang for gay), Michael comes out loud and clear in Expressing Yourself. It's a flamboyant showstopper (featuring giant dancing dresses) but seems kind of forced.
In many ways, Billy Elliot is a musical for our times, its portrait of jobless miners ("Don't Leave My Husband Out of Work," reads a picket sign) resonating with today's high unemployment. For all the love and closeness of the miners' community, which eventually gets behind Billy's efforts to win entry to the Royal Ballet School in London, this is dark entertainment that doesn't minimize the dysfunction of economic dislocation. The downbeat theme is exemplified by Tony, played by Jeff Kready, who violently opposes his little brother's ballet dreams and rages that the miners are "dinosaurs." Billy's grandmother (Patti Perkins) sings of her late husband's foibles ("I hated the sod") in the conflicted We'd Go Dancing.
Most of all, Billy Elliot is about families, with probably more children in the cast than any show since Oliver! And in the warm, quirky performance of Faith Prince as Mrs. Wilkinson, the chain-smoking provincial dance teacher who recognizes Billy's talent and nourishes it, and stands up to his family's ignorance, this musical is a powerful statement for the importance of arts education.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.