THE SHOW "Billy Elliot the Musical Live" on "Great Performances"
WHEN | WHERE Oct. 23 at 9 p.m., WNET/13
WHAT IT'S ABOUT This smashing example of a dance-and-story-driven musical is also one of the theater's best adaptations from a movie. The 2005 British show is still running in London. On Broadway, where it lasted three years, "Billy Elliot" won 10 Tonys in 2009. It is a deeply touching and entertaining musical based on the 2000 film about both the devastating 1984 strike in a small English mining town and a motherless 11-year-old boy's unlikely passion for ballet. Elton John's score, unlike his sentimental Disney music, is impressively ambitious, as character-revealing and multi-leveled as the material, which Lee Hall adapted from his screenplay.
What has always been astonishing are the children, especially the alternating Billys, usually three at a time who have grown up and, eventually, out of the show through the decade. Director Stephen Daldry and choreographer Peter Darling infuse everyone in the big cast -- including Billy's tender but conflicted father -- with a personal story, as we are led from union hall to the bloody streets, from Billy's little twirling pop-up bedroom to his audition at the Royal Ballet. There is even a dream ballet, the white-swan adagio, for Billy and his older self, with levitation by Tchaikovsky and a couple of wires.
MY SAY It takes a while to get into the taped version, recorded in front of a West End audience in the fall of 2014 and, therefore, seems more like a frozen stage moment than a movie. There are delicately used aerial shots, cinematic shadows and spotlights. Even so, however, the big group scenes, the North English accents and the anti-Thatcher politics demand we hang in a while as the double-headed stories unfold. The wait is well worth it.
Elliott Hanna, the 11-year-old who plays Billy, is extraordinary and the camera catches every nuance of his bright, sensitive, thoughtful face. Then there is his dancing, as he evolves in front of us from a kid who doesn't know what his body is telling him into a classical dancer with exquisite placement and an exceptionally expressive line. You don't need to know, but you will want to, that the dancer playing Billy's older self is Liam Mower, the very first onstage Billy, who returned to the production for the taping.