There are three things you’ll immediately notice in the beginning of Billy Elliot, the live musical version of the acclaimed 2000 movie now being staged at The Smith Center. One: The contrast between the stage’s two vertically stacked backdrops is jarring and distracting. Two: You’ve never heard so much coarse language in a mainstream musical before — not that we’re complaining — though it likely reflects the hardscrabble way of life in mid-1980s Northern England, this production’s setting. And three: Former Prime Minister of England Margaret Thatcher is the scapegoat for such struggles, and she’s pilloried from the start (and for the rest of the musical).
Once you’ve dwelled on those observations, the real thrust of the production is finally upon you: Pre-teen Billy (played by Mitchell Tobin on May 14) has walked into a ballet studio to deliver a set of keys, only to find himself compelled to dance alongside the young ballerinas. This begins a six-month struggle to hide his new passion from his father (Rich Hebert), embittered by the death of his wife and a miner’s strike that’s left him broke, and whose working-class paternalism leads him to lambaste boys in pointe shoes — until he sees for himself that the son growing apart from him has a real talent. With the help of a sassy dance instructor (Janet Dickinson), Billy works up the skills and courage to try out for the Royal Ballet School, an endeavor made difficult by his increasingly downtrodden hometown, now under a police state.
While there would be no Billy Elliot without the strike backstory, it does not motivate the titular character to dance. It’s a wholly innate, nearly involuntary desire, and it’s clearly inhabiting the actor playing him, too. Tobin’s pitch-perfect line delivery (even when it’s hard to decipher his accent) is impressive enough, as are his waterworks-inducing conversations with the ghost of Billy’s mother. However, his physical showmanship, as graceful (the “Swan Lake” number) as it is primordial (“Angry Dance”), elevates his performance. Tobin even overcomes underwhelming choreography and an uninspired Elton John score with his sweeping movements and razzle-dazzle footwork. In short, the kid carries this production with gobsmacking confidence and skill.
The stage version of Billy Elliot doesn’t trump Stephen Daldry’s film; in fact, it’s a little clunky. But it does better develop the characters and augment the story’s emotional dynamics — which means this particular Billy is more apt to steal your heart. And he does.
BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL, 7:30 p.m., Thursday-Sunday, May 16-19; 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, $24-$129, thesmithcenter.com