A British coal mining strike in 1984 seems like a rather sooty setting for an inspirational story, but that gave audiences all the more reason to root for a miner's son who aspires to be a ballet dancer in the 2000 movie "Billy Elliot." Its theatrical adaptation won 10 Tony Awards in 2009, including best musical, and now that touring Broadway show has come to the Hippodome Theatre.
Its literally uplifting story amounts to a Christmas gift for theatergoers that's much nicer than a lump of coal in the stocking. As if it weren't heartwarming enough that "Billy Elliot the Musical" tracks a young lad's determination to overcome his depressed surroundings and soar in the world of classical ballet, this musical even features snow-filled village streets, a traditional Christmas pageant and other signs of the season. How's that for a well-timed holiday booking at the Hippodrome?
The opening night crowd included many small children who seemed captivated by the title character's pursuit of his career dream. It's likely that some of these kids went home and dreamed about pursuing their artistic aspirations, but very unlikely that any of them went home and dreamed about becoming a coal miner.
Billy Elliot (an endearing Noah Parets at the reviewed performance, who alternates with three other actors in the role), has been glum since the death of his mother. Billy's coal miner father (Rich Hebert) loves him, but tends to be gruff; likewise, Billy's older brother, Tony (Cullen R. Titmas), is brimming with macho bluster. At least Billy's Grandma (Patti Perkins), who lives with them, uses her saucy wit to reinforce her affection for the lad.
In this working-class environment incisively brought to life by a talented cast, it's symbolically apt that Billy and his male peers take boxing lessons at a local gym. When Billy's boxing moves prove to be closer to pirouettes than to punches, everybody thinks it's kind of weird. Even Billy isn't quite sure why such movement comes naturally for him.
One person who recognizes his raw talent, however, is the local dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson (Janet Dickinson), whose all-girl ballet classes formally study what Billy instinctively does on his own.
Faster than you can say "Billy Elliot the Musical," the clever choreography by Peter Darling and agile direction by Stephen Daldry provide a lively mix of boxing moves, classical ballet, tap dancing and even burly miners stomping around town. There's so much life-affirming movement that characters who aren't sitting on chairs are likely to hold them up in the air and use them as dance partners.
Although the score by Elton John is not as creatively inventive as one has reason to expect from a composer of his lofty credentials, its eclectic and extroverted nature musically serves the material well. You won't go out singing any of the tunes, but they get the job done.
All of this physical movement and ardent singing complement the emotionally moving story in which Billy's private dance lessons with Mrs. Wilkinson feed his hope of being admitted to a prestigious dance school in London. These lessons are kept secret from Billy's father, who is certain to disapprove. You know a dramatic showdown is coming.
Another sort of drama serves as the backdrop for this story, namely, the 1984 strike in which the miners' union had a tense showdown with then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It wouldn't be a bad idea to brush up on that bitter chapter in British history before seeing the show.
Similarly, it may take American theatergoers awhile to acclimate to some of the working-class British slang, although the frequent obscenities will enjoy universal recognition. There is rough language in Billy's environment, but he learns to soar above that, too.
"Billy Elliot the Musical" runs through Dec. 30 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw Street in Baltimore. Tickets are $25- $85. Call 410-547-SEAT or go to http://www.Broadwayacrossamerica.com.