Billy Elliot, the character, is a smokin’ dancer. “Billy Elliot the Musical” isn’t so hot.
The drama, sentiment, passion and excitement that permeated the excellent 2000 movie starring Jamie Bell as the young dancer and Julie Walters as his crusty ballet teacher don’t pervade the touring version of the Tony Award-winning show at the Orpheum in The City.
Even though the film and musical have the same creators, director Stephen Daldry and writer Lee Hall, and the same unlikely combination of themes — ballet dancing and labor strife in Britain — they vary wildly in tone.
Focusing on drama punctuated by driving dance scenes and awesome 1980s rock music, the film aims high and succeeds.
The stage production is filled with cheap, bombastic jokes, broad characterizations, and loudly played, not particularly memorable songs composed by Elton John and lyricist Hall.
Onstage, there’s little nuance in the story of an 11-year-old from a coal mining town in the middle of nasty labor struggles in Margaret Thatcher’s England. With his angry dad and brother on strike, his grandmother gone crazy and his mom dead (but a visitor in the form of a ghost), Billy stumbles upon his refuge, in Mrs. Wilkinson’s ballet class that follows boxing lessons he’s forced to take.
Although his family ultimately supports his quest to continue ballet studies at an exclusive London school, it’s not an easy journey — not for Billy, nor for folks in the audience who can’t really connect with the constant shenanigans being served up.
For example, the little girls in ballet class are frighteningly frenetic, almost clownish, as is Billy’s gay, cross-dressing young friend, Michael, whose big, inexplicable number features huge dancing frocks. Crowded scenes with miners, police and ballet dancers co-mingling and clashing are equally confusing.
There’s a saving grace, though, to “Billy Elliot,” and on Tuesday’s opening night it was J.P. Viernes, one of five teens alternating in the title role.
Viernes, a 15-year-old from Half Moon Bay, is a kick-butt dancer, and it’s a thrill watching his each and every move. Another good thing: He’s in the spotlight a lot, showcasing awesome skills at contemporary dance and tap, too — not just ballet.
As Mrs. Wilkinson, Broadway performer Faith Prince, though fine, plays second fiddle to Billy, as does the rest of the cast, whose best number, sadly, is the vivacious curtain call.
It’s only at that point does the full ensemble display the transcendent joy of dance that “Billy Elliot the Musical” purports to be about all along.
Billy Elliot the Musical
Where: Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 p.m. select Wednesdays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, 7:30 p.m. select Sundays; no show July 3; closes Sept. 17
Tickets: $35 to $99
Contact: (888) 746-1799 or http://shnsf.com/shows/billyelliot