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'Billy Elliot: The Musical' a welcome holiday visitor at the Hippodrome

It’s a particularly appropriate time to see “Billy Elliot: The Musical,” which has leaped into the Hippodrome for a welcome holiday visit. And I'm not just talking about the Christmas scene in Act 2.

Although the principal story in this Tony Award-winning show — a young boy's unexpected journey into the world of ballet — remains front-and-center, equally compelling plot lines about unions and working-class solidarity jump out with an extra kick right now.

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From the opening minutes of "Billy Elliot," the audience is plunged into the tensions in an English mining town in 1984, when a strike is called to protest moves by Margaret Thatcher's government against the coal industry.

That tension, which generates some of the most visceral music in Elton John's score, seems uncomfortably relevant, given the emotional battles just fought in Michigan over legislation targeting unions. And when, by the musical's close, the defeated strikers sense the extent of their loss, Baltimoreans may well find themselves thinking about the depressing saga of Sparrows Point.

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The ability to touch multiple nerves is ...

what made the original “Billy Elliot,” a 2000 film by Lee Hall and Stephen Daldry, such an international hit. And it’s what gives such a potent spark to the musical version they fashioned a few years later.

Not everything works. Billy and his cross-dressing buddy, Michael, end up doing a tacky fantasy number better saved for a revival of “La Cage aux Folles.” After the subtle, affecting final scene, we get a tap-dancing routine for the whole ensemble that feels tacked on solely for applause-milking.

And while the creators clearly worked hard to catch the authentic flavor of the workers and their families, they couldn't resist severe caricatures for cops and one-percenters.

But the hits greatly outnumber the misses in this opera-length musical, which finds heart, humor and a whole lot of life lessons in the tale of kid who stumbles into a dance class and is gradually, unalterably transformed.

Four performers are alternating in the role of Billy during the Baltimore run. One of them is Noah Parets.

He may be a little stiff as a dancer, but he has disarming energy. More importantly, he is an assured, persuasive actor. He nails the linguistic challenge (the Geordie accent of northern England) and conveys Billy's internal conflicts tellingly.

Rich Hebert gives a rich portrayal of Billy's coarse-edged father; his grainy, poignant account of "Deep into the Ground" is a highlight. Cullen R. Titmas is very effective as Billy's volatile brother. Patti Perkins shines as salty Grandma.

Janet Dickinson does terrific work as Mrs. Wilkinson, the chain-smoking, foul-mouthed dance teacher. Jake Kitchin doesn't reveal all the layers beneath the boundary-pushing Michael (another shared role), but he proves to be quite the charmer nonetheless.

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Other standouts in the large cast include Joel Blum as the boxing coach who has a wee problem with phraseology and Patrick Wetzel as the dance school pianist and surprise dancer.

The production, originally directed by Daldry, flows with cinematic fluidity through Ian MacNeil's atmospheric set.

Several scenes still startle — the mash-up of a ballet class and a miners-police clash, for example; the frantic holiday party that opens Act 2 with the wicked song "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher"; the miners, with the lamps on their helmets piercing the theater, as they head back to work.

There are times when the score finds John straining to pump up the drama. But most of the songs (Hall was the lyricist) do their job solidly, nowhere more so than in "Electricity," when Billy tries to explain what it feels like to dance, to break free of the troubled world around him — and, at least in spirit, has the audience spinning right along with him.

"Billy Elliot runs through Dec. 30 at the Hippodrome.

PHOTOS BY KYLE FROMAN (miners) AND DOUG BLEMKER (dancers)


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