Detroit knows about labor unions. We know about strikes. We know what it’s like when someone decides that your way of life is obsolete. And maybe that’s why “Billy Elliot the Musical” rings so true for us.
Or maybe, as Detroiters, we are pre-programmed to love any story about an underdog who takes a chance, defies the odds, and seizes a dream. Because we’ve had our share of those heroes, here, too. In fact, in the Tuesday night opening show, native son Kylend Hetherington of Auburn performed as Billy Elliot, a role he alternates with Ben Cook, Zach Manske and Noah Parets. (Read our interview with Kylend here.)
The truth is, there’s something about “Billy Elliot” that seems to strike a personal chord with everyone who’s seen it. And since that includes more than 8 million people worldwide, with 10 Tony Awards on the proverbial mantel as affirmation, its success must have something to do with artful storytelling, fabulous dancing and choreography, and music composed by Elton John.
Although the fictional story is about an endearing kid who harbors and hides his love for dance, it is played out against the very real turmoil of the 1984 coal miners’ strike in Northern England. As we watch ugly duckling Billy discover his inner Swan Lake, the sweet moments are juxtaposed against grinding hardship, conflicts with the police and “scab” labor, and ultimately, the despair experienced by Billy’s father, brother and all the miners’ families.
Director Stephen Daldry, book writer and lyricist Lee Hall, composer Elton John, and choreographer Peter Darling deliberately and deftly interweave the story of Billy’s emotional and artistic journey with the miners’ struggles. Literally, the children at Mrs. Wilkinson’s ballet school dance in and out of the striking miners as they face off against the police. And although the rough miners and their families don’t really understand Billy’s affinity for the ballet, he is still one of them. After giving him a hard time, the miners eventually get behind Billy and raise him up as a beacon of hope in a dying community.
The national tour of “Billy Elliot the Musical” plays at the Fisher Theatre as the season opener in the Broadway in Detroit series. Kylend Hetherington sings and dances with captivating buoyancy. Sasha Ely-Judkins, as his dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson, is in top form. And the entire ensemble of adult and juvenile performers is just a joy to watch in action.
You don’t want to miss this inspiring musical. “Billy Elliot” runs at the Fisher Theatre through September 16 with shows Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., Sunday evening at 7:30 p.m., and matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Ticket prices range from $39 to $89, and parking in the adjacent structure is free. For more information, visit the Broadway in Detroit website or the official website for the “Billy Elliot” tour.