Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Road Less Traveled

On 45th Street, there were hordes lining up in hope of cancellations for Billy Elliot, which were not to be. Standing room plus, not counting the family of five, the Stoddards, including Maeve, 4, whose first show it was, sitting next to me, filled with anticipation. I, too, was excited to be there. Too excited, as it turned out. The little boy with the lollipop climbed the steps to the stage and stood there waiting for the show to start, a touch that touched my heart. But that was the last I was touched, I who have wept through the overture of the revived South Pacific, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the best movie musical ever, and the blind contestant on American Idol being sent home. So it is not that I am not easily moved. Billy Elliot is a masterwork of technical brilliance. “They made it so technical,” said my P.A.,(Personal Angel) a dancer and choreographer who had been to Merce Cunningham’s 90th birthday celebration at BAM last week, where she had wept throughout. But then, because hers is a softer heart than mine, and she is living in these times, she said “How great that this production is giving all those people so many jobs.”
There are 53 people in the company(not counting all those working backstage, wardrobe mistresses, wigmakers, etc) of Billy Elliot, and at times it seems that all of them are onstage at once. Little girl dancers in tutus, and Big Bad British police advancing in a line with heavy transparent shields, and striking miners and Maggie Thatcher. All of it intelligent as the movie was, but none of it as intelligible, cluttered as it seemed and felt, even to my PA, who wished she could have better observed the choreography, except there was too much of it going on at the same time. Even when yesterday’s Billy(there are three of them who alternate, -- we got to see David Alvarez, who is suitably amazing—and there is, I understand, a farm where they are growing more Billy Elliots) takes balletic flight with his older counterpart, it is rigged, quite literally. A hook on his back carries him aloft as if this were Peter Pan. So unnecessary when the music(the actual symphonic recording of Swan Lake) soars, and the dancers could do the same without metallic aids.
That music, by the way, is the last that moved me. I know this is Sir Elton, who was so touched by the story, coming so close to his own—a father who disapproved of the career he chose, as did the father of Lee Hall, the writer of the original movie, and the book and lyrics for the show--- but there is not one memorable song. Haydn Gwynne has her own personal conviction and radiance in the role of the tough ballet teacher who discovers Billy’s gift, but even her energy cannot bring a sense of originality to SHINE, the number that should have done it, saying what it was you had to do as a performer. The ghost of Fred Ebb fluttered through the lyric as it suggested one should razzle-dazzle, wafting me over to ‘Chicago.’ ‘Expressing Yourself’, the guaranteed show-stopper, became just that because of tinsel and glitter, literally, waving in the lights, and a spirited attempt at scene-stealing by Keann Johnson, who, according to my PA “pushed it,” but it worked for me. Still, all that energy did not make it into a song.
But it was an afternoon of uplift, especially for Maeve’s ten year old brother, Aidan, who had seen only one show before, The Radio City Music Hall Christmas show, and thought this was better, although which is more extravagant could be argued. I exited, my heart a little heavy, because I knew without looking that the musical I really loved, Next to Normal, across the street was not doing nearly as well, with, I think, greater originality, genuine emotionality, and true talent at the helm. Oh, well, as Anne Bancroft said, quoting her father, “that’s why there’s chocolate and vanilla.”