Billy Elliot the Musical
Sacramento Community Center Theater1301 L St.
Sacramento, CA 95814
“Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher / We all celebrate today / 'Cause it's one day closer to your death.”
These lyrics from Billy Elliot the Musical—whose touring production landed at the Community Center Theater on April 9, as part of California Musical Theatre's Broadway Sacramento series—arrived before a Sacramento audience was ready to hear them. After the above lyrics were sung as part of the song “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher”—just one day after the Iron Lady's death—a glaringly awkward silence filled the room.
Perhaps this says more about the Sacramento audience's implied political conservatism or reverence for Thatcher than the quality of the singing or songwriting. Just a day earlier, London's West End production of the musical took an audience vote on whether to include the song or not. The audience voted overwhelmingly to keep the song in, according to the BBC. But then again, England carries more of a socially liberal bent than the United States, and the Brits are already used to a long cultural and musical history of Maggie bashing (see: the Clash, Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello, Morrissey, etc.)
It's hard not to talk about Billy Elliot the Musical without mentioning its political undertones. The 2005 musical, which is based on the 2000 film Billy Elliot and features music by Elton John and lyrics by Lee Hall, takes place during the United Kingdom miners' strike of 1984 and 1985. Billy Elliot, played on opening night by Mitchell Tobin (one of four boys who alternate as the lead role), is a motherless 11-year-old aspiring dancer from a mining family. The working-class town is so wrapped up in a labor strike that they don't realize Billy's been taking ballet classes and has enough potential to join the Royal Ballet School.
Billy and his cross-dressing friend Michael (played on this night by Sam Poon) hold their own on a stage full of older actors. Poon, in particular, shines as a comedic counterpart to the more serious Billy. Meanwhile, Mrs. Wilkinson (played by Janet Dickinson) delivers an inspired performance as Billy's mentor and community ballet teacher. Rich Hebert, who plays Billy's dad, offers a strong portrayal of a dynamic character that is consumed by his role as local strike leader, haunted by lost love and losing belief in the future of the country.
Yes, it's a campy plot and quite raw at moments with so many young actors, but it also allows a group of children to dance to the far edge of their abilities and shine on a big stage for the first time in their lives. This young energy gives the production its hopefulness against the backdrop of such a violent and dark time for the working class.