I have to confess that I didn’t see “Billy Elliot the Musical” on the London stage, because I figured everyone had already seen it or would see it. Accordingly, I can’t say how faithful this Israeli production – which is being touted as a labor of love for everyone involved – is to the original film version, which was directed by Stephen Daldry. Nor do I know how bound this production is in its contractual commitments to the original.
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I can definitely understand those who saw this musical, based on the successful 2000 movie and with music by Elton John, and found cult elements in it. “Billy Elliot the Musical” is a highly professional fusion of several basic dramatic-musical fixtures. It’s a social musical (in the spirit of “The Full Monty”) against the backdrop of the shattering miners’ strike in Thatcher’s England. It’s about the confrontation a talented individual undergoes, and the social solidarity he puts to the test. It’s a behind-the-scenes musical, a Cinderella story, a family drama about the disintegration of paternal authority, with the addition of some sexual identity issues and their attendant stigmas. And, of course, there’s the dancing, with the “sissy” labels related to classical ballet (including jokes about the “package” of the male dancers in tights) and also the verbally inexpressible celebration of the dancer’s freedom. Oh, yes, there’s also Billy the kid, with his irresistible charm.
After conquering the West End and Broadway, this musical became an international export industry; the Israeli production is one of many worldwide. And in every locale, it’s not only a play, but also the story of finding and training the local kids who will star in the production.
Almost a craving
So, if you ask me about the Israeli production, the answer is that it’s perfectly fine. It takes good advantage of the power of the material and its dramatic, melodramatic, comic and musical-comedic moments. The machinery that lifts and lowers parts of the set works overtime, in some cases to impressive effect, such as when the illuminated barbed-wire fence is needed for background. But at other times it undercuts the theatrical effect (as when Billy floats over the stage and at the same time part of the set for the next scene is lowered, ruining the impact).
The director and choreographer Eldar Groisman viewed this project as more than a play, almost as a craving, and he succeeds in getting the best out of the moments of drama (Billy rebels against his father), the tear-jerking scenes (the song in which Billy’s father longs for his dead wife, or a letter from the mother, who died alone), and of course from the cathartic dancing.
The lead actors do their part and more. Dafna Dekel, who plays the dancing teacher, Miss Wilkinson, projects a temperament that made me regret she doesn’t do more work in musical comedy. Avi Kushnir, as Billy’s father, tackles a dramatic role of a kind he rarely touches on the stage, and demonstrates considerable ability. Oshri Cohen – Billy’s brother – is sharp and impressive in his dramatic opportunities. And the two Billys – Arnon Herring and Shon Granot Zilbershtein – playing the part on which everything depends, live up to our expectations. Children (and teenagers), as we know, are notorious scene-stealers, and if they also dance marvelously, even the hardest heart, especially of a fan of musicals like myself, melts.
Still, let’s put things in their proper proportion. “Billy Elliot the Musical” is a work or art in its genre, and if it’s placed in professional hands (such as Eli Bijaoui, the translator, and the musical director, Ben Zeidman) it can’t be bad. The social aspect, which remains as it was in the original, is flawed in regard to the reenactment of the documentary side (Thatcher’s speeches in Hebrew). In addition, I found the handling of the sexual identity theme disappointing. But these are minor matters. All in all, despite the heady mix and the music of Elton John, this is not a masterpiece of the genre, even if it is a type of contemporary cult.
It’s a successful musical from London that has been given a strictly commercial production here, and not by one of the repertoire theaters. Though not a complete innovation, it is still a praiseworthy phenomenon, because this is the right framework for these productions. And in this context, it’s worth mentioning (and admiring the ability) of Dina Doron, as Billy’s grandmother. She played the lead in “Irma la Douce” in a Habima Theater production in 1962, in one of the first musicals to be imported to Israel. Now, more than half a century later, she is still at the top of her form in acting, singing and dancing, too.
Performances of “Billy Elliot the Musical” will be held at City Hall Theater in the Glilot Cinema City complex, on June 30 and July 2, 6, 7, 8, 15, 20, 21, 23, 28. Tickets at https://www.billyelliot.co.il/ (Hebrew site)