With "Billy Elliot," Lee Hall, born in the mine country of northeast England, became the inspirational scribe for its hardscrabble people. In both his screenplay for the movie and his book for the smash musical, Hall managed to celebrate the humanity of these miners, shine a light on the forced economic insularity of their lives and, through the ballet yearnings of young Billy, make a dazzling case for the wasted artistic gifts in working-class communities.
Hall returns to this rich territory for "The Pitmen Painters," the true story of untrained miners who became a celebrated art group in the '30s. The work, which began at the same area's Live Theatre in 2007 and became a London hit with the original actors and company director Max Roberts, has come to Broadway to tell another inspirational story and to be one.
At least, that is the script with a happy ending. Unfortunately, despite fine performances, "Pitmen Painters" is mild-mannered, talky and scattershot. Instead of firing up what should be a compelling chunk of art and social history, Hall weighs it down with dull exchanges, repetitious statements about the meaning of art and, ultimately, a confusing message about the significance of the group.
Five miners have signed up for an art-appreciation class as part of a worker-education program. When the professor shows up at the shabby hall with his standard lecture, Lee undercuts the integrity of his uneducated characters with a heavy hand. One says "bless you" at the mention of Titian. Another asks if the Sistine Chapel is "the one in Yorkshire?"
The teacher decides instead to have them learn by doing. The real results are astonishing - individual, poignant images of the mines and even one modernist perspective on a dog. The men are discovered by the art world.
But things unravel in unclear ways. Trusted people cannot be trusted. And, despite the colorful men and their gorgeous paintings, Lee never clarifies whether he thinks all people are good artists if given a chance or if it was a fluke that these people happened to be good artists. When the rich patron tells one of them, "From a distance we all look like stereotypes," we wish Lee had given us a closer look.
WHERE Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., Manhattan
INFO $57-$116; 212-239-6200; telecharge.com