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Billy Elliot

Orpheum Theatre Musical

The San Francisco cast of Billy Elliot: The Musical kicked off a three-month run last week at the Orpheum Theatre, with local 15-year-old J.P. Viernes of Half Moon Bay taking on the eponymous role to a well-deserved standing ovation.

The musical follows the same plot as the 2000 film, also written by Lee Hall and directed by Stephen Daltry. Set against the grim backdrop of the Northern England coal industry strike of 1984 and the ensuing clashes between union and riot police, it’s the story of 11-year-old Billy Elliot’s journey to a better life and discovery of his own artistic capacity as he decides to pursue ballet dancing rather than work the mines like his prideful father and brother before him. Under the personal tutelage of ballet teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (played by Broadway vet Faith Prince), he develops his innate talent and lands an audition for London’s Royal Ballet.

Hall and Daltry set a suitably dark mood for the political and historical context, while not interfering with the sheer joy of Billy’s personal triumphs. The two storylines successfully weave together, rather than stepping on each other’s toes. By the middle of Act 2 its hard not to be absolutely invested.

Peter Darling’s choreography never disappoints. It’s exciting and tense and full of a range of emotions, especially during “Angry Dance” and “Solidarity,” the latter of which seamlessly mixes Mrs. Wilkinson’s young ballet girls with a violent confrontation between the hardened miners and British riot police. Prince is perfect as the small town ballet teacher—harsh when she has to be and tender at other points.

Act 1 is particularly strong, with high-energy numbers broken up with more lighthearted fare like “Expressing Yourself,” a spotlight tune for Billy’s best friend Michael (played by Griffin Birney on opening night), a kid with a knack for trying on his mother’s dresses because “[his] dad does it all the time.” “Born To Boogie” is a fun celebration of dance performed by Billy and Mrs. Wilkinson’s house piano player (Patrick Wetzel). The character of Michael only further highlights one of the play’s central issues: the reconciliation between machismo and the young male stereotype versus an emotional, inward-facing sensitivity.

Of course, it's worth mentioning that Viernes himself—who rotates the lead role with four other teens—is an amazing dancer. Although his accent was a little more Jamaican than English, he carried the emotional ups and downs of the role and really seemed to lose himself in the rigorous physical aspects that it called for. His 2nd Act dance to Swan Lake with an older version of himself (played by Maximilien A. Baud) is outstanding and unexpected, and one of the performance's biggest treats.

Billy Elliot: The Musical
Orpheum Theatre
June 27 – Sept 17, 2011