When the arts are under pressure from budget cuts and political wind-shifts, what better time is there than Valentine's Day for a theatrical love letter to the power of dance?
On Tuesday, that love letter was "Billy Elliot the Musical," which opened at the Atwood Concert Hall. "Billy Elliot" (without "The Musical" part) was a feature film that came out in 2000; five years later, with songs by Elton John, the stage version debuted in London. The show takes a frequently gritty, sometimes sentimental, but ultimately hopeful view of a young boy's artistic awakening in northern England during the long, brutal coal miners' strike of 1984-1985.
Billy is 11 and motherless, the son of a striking miner and the brother of another. Sent to a boxing lesson, he stumbles into a girls' ballet class. From then on, he knows he wants to dance, not fight, but his father and brother are dead set against it.
Despite a few opening-night glitches — some out-of-sync hoofing, a dancer's slip, the orchestra overpowering the singers in the opening number — the Anchorage Concert Association's latest offering worked on all levels.
The cast is a mix of Outside professionals and several local young dancers who play Billy's ballet classmates and acquitted themselves quite well on Tuesday.
Among the visiting pros were several standouts, including the show's dance captain, Christine Negherbon, who plays the acerbic teacher that mentors Billy and spars with his family; Doug Tompos as Billy's loving but worried father; and Mitchell McCollum as Billy's angry brother.
A crowd favorite was tiny, blond Ross Nemeth as Michael, who starts out as Billy's sparring partner and ends up showing him the joys of cross-dressing. The two boys' audience-pleasing "Expressing Yourself" duet featured some crisp tap dancing and a "chorus" of giant, mobile dresses.
Ultimately, though, the success of any "Billy Elliot" hangs on whoever plays Billy; the young performer has to carry a big load, both physically and emotionally.
This is Braden King's second time playing Billy, and it was apparent Tuesday that the 13-year-old has settled into the role. He's a good actor who can handle what the part calls for, but his strength, appropriately, is his dancing. That skill showed especially in the despairing "Angry Dance" that closed the first act and in a quiet, gentle number with an imaginary grown-up Billy.
The sets looked worn and steeped in the coal dust that covers Billy's town. Scene changes are done on the fly and during the action, which speeds the show along — a bonus for a play that runs 2½ hours, including intermission.
The audience that filled half the 2,000-seat Atwood Tuesday included a number of young people, some of whom could well have been dancers.
Take note, though: "Billy Elliot" may be about a child, but it's not a kiddie show. The language is often rough — even youngsters drop the F-bomb, although in the dense vowels of northern England it somehow sounds less dire — and the feeling of violence looming is constant.
On the other hand, the finale can pull a laugh from just about anyone. Three words: miners in tutus.
"Billy Elliot the Musical," presented by the Anchorage Concert Association and Plan-B Entertainment, runs through Feb. 19 at the Atwood Concert Hall, Alaska Center for the Performing Arts.