BOSTON — “Gotta dance!” has kind of been the theme of every Broadway musical from the beginning of the genre through the golden age. But by the end of the 1970s, certainly, folks didn’t “gotta dance no more” as things in musical theater got more serious, somber even.
So part of the great crowd-pleasing appeal of “Billy Elliot the Musical’’ — the 2009 stage adaptation of the wonderful 2000 film — is that it’s such a throwback to those days of “gotta dance” uplift — in which you could almost dance your troubles away, whether they were caused by family woes or Margaret Thatcher, whose policies led to the 1984 coal strike. That’s the backdrop of the story about a boy who prefers an all-girl ballet class to boxing.
Add in some 21st-century verities — “Be all you can be” applies as much to ballet school for young males as it does to the Army; some current realities — many working-class jobs are disappearing; and Elton John’s best theatrical music score, and you’ve got yourself a winner.
And yet “Billy Elliot” feels like the prom date you want to love, but realize you’re only going to be good friends. It’s a “nice” musical in every respect, but I kept waiting, in vain, for it to show a little more pizazz, to take my breath away.
Unfortunately, the problems with “Billy Elliot” start with Billy Elliot. Kylend Hetherington, who rotates as Billy and was the opening night star, is too tentative a presence as a singer and actor, and even his dancing doesn’t match Billy’s supposed passion. (Sharon’s Noah Parets danced at Tuesday night’s preview performance.) Hetherington is best in the higher energy numbers — tap dancing against the full-body police shields, for example — than in straight ballet. (I would be in the distinct minority on this score if an opening-night vote were taken.)
There’s an on-the-one-hand-on-the-other about most of “Billy Elliot.” Peter Darling’s choreography is imaginative — one scene has police and miners squaring off with Billy’s dance school in the middle. It’s imaginative, but also seems a desperate way of getting the miners up and dancing. Sir Elton, meanwhile, draws more on his “Philadelphia Freedom” rock props than he did in “Aida” and “The Lion King,” which serves the show well, but none of the music is making its way onto my iPod.
All that said, “Billy Elliot” is thoroughly likable. It may not be that daring, anymore, to portray Thatcher as an ogress, but this is a more political work than the movie — it could have played safer than it does. The power of community goes only so far. The writer, Lee Hall, and director, Stephen Daldry, are the same as the film’s, so there’s no compromise on the vision and quality. Even if it all feels less fresh and organic than it did 12 years ago, it’s a smart and witty story.
The production is pretty solid, as well. Rich Hebert as Billy Elliot’s father, Patti Perkins as the grandmother and Janet Dickinson as his chain-smoking teacher are excellent. The musical could have been shortened a bit, but the pace basically justifies the three-hour length.
So, “Billy,” I guess romance is out of the question. But thanks for an enjoyable evening.
“Billy Elliot The Musical” plays at the Boston Opera House through Aug. 19.