As film-to-stage adaptations go, Stephen Daldry's "Billy Elliot" could hardly have been a better candidate.
The movie, released in 2000 to torrents of critical and popular applause, is a perfectly plotted tale of talent blossoming in harsh circumstances. It is emotionally canny in the best possible sense, fraught with tension, backed by an excellent soundtrack and centered on a character whose story speaks to the creative drive in all of us.
So it is not surprising that a group of producers got together to create "Billy Elliot the Musical," which opened a six-day run in Shea's Performing Arts Center on Tuesday night. In a series of smart moves, they enlisted Daldry to direct, original screenwriter Lee Hall to write the book and Peter Darling to expand on the ebullient choreography he dreamed up for the film.
With the original creative team on board, things seemed to be shaping up nicely. But then, in a decision that boggles the mind, the producers decided to hire one of the least adventurous composers working musical theater today.
The show's tepid and uninspiring score by Elton John – the partner of "Billy Elliot" producer David Furnish – does its best to blunt the impact of this otherwise consummately executed musical. If not for his contribution, this might have been one of the great shows to emerge from London's West End in the early 21st century.
The score features exactly two songs of any redeeming value: the comic "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher" and the second-act ballad "Electricity," sung by the title character. The rest is dumbed-down Kander and Ebb, boilerplate ballads and half-hearted pastiches that misinterpret the show's emotional content at worst or serve as unobtrusive elevator music at best.
One of the best numbers, a dream sequence pas de deux between Billy and an adult ballet dancer, was set to Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." It's a wonder John allowed the late Russian composer's work into the show at all rather than replacing it with some rehash of "Candle in the Wind."
The best way to approach this show is to ignore the score and focus on the visual elements, much in the same way you might mute a TV football broadcast to avoid bad color commentary.
The brilliance of this show, which tells the story of an aspiring ballet dancer in a small coal-mining town in Northern England in the midst of the 1984 U.K. miners' strike, lies largely in Darling's choreography. His work in the film was already ingenious, but in the musical it is, in many places, downright transcendent.
Darling gives us a ballet class full of spastic girls executing hilarious moves that barely classify as ballet, the better to emphasize young Billy's comparative grace and talent. He choreographed an elegant dream sequence in which a group of men – each of whom represents the late, abusive husband of Billy's grandmother (the excellent Patti Perkins) – dances with chairs in slow motion before emitting simultaneous puffs of smoke and gracefully escaping through a pair of windows.
He presents the striking montage of "Solidarity," in which riot police, incensed miners and tutu-wearing ballerinas share the stage, and Billy's "Angry Dance," a borderline-psychedelic display of frustration at his family's refusal to let him pursue his dream. And there is that glorious, imaginary pas de deux, which Billy executes with an older version of himself, played gracefully by University at Buffalo graduate Christopher Howard.
In Tuesday's performance, Billy was played by Ben Cook, whose performances of "Electricity" and "Angry Dance" were stunning exhibitions of vocal and physical talent. (He switches off with three other boys playing Billy throughout the run.) As Billy's cross-dressing best friend Michael, Sam Poon (who himself switches off with fellow actor Jake Kitchin) was a total riot. And Rich Herbert, as Billy's gruff father, turns in an alternately cantankerous and sensitive performance.
In the end, John's sub-par work holds this show back from perfection. But even so, Darling's magnificent work and these gifted performers help the rest of the show to succeed for the same reason Billy Elliot himself does: because of a joyful, uncomplicated love for dance.
"Billy Elliot the Musical"
3 stars (out of four)
Musical presented through Sunday in Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St. Tickets are $27.50 to $67.50. Call (800) 745-3000 or visit www.sheas.org.