Starts a bit slow. Packs an emotional wallop at the end.
In between, a large ensemble of character actors, all of them hoofing as if their lives depended on it, backs a miraculously gifted 14-year-old kid.
“Billy Elliot the Musical,” based on the 2000 hit movie about a boy from the British coal country who wants to be a ballet dancer, not a boxer, opened a weeklong run Tuesday night at the Orpheum. As you'd expect, it has plenty of great dancing — though you'll have to wait for the second act to see the best of it.
But the show doesn't rest on all those pairs of twinkle toes.
No, it's the story and the time in which it's placed — when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher broke the coal unions in the 1980s — that gives this musical its exceptional substance, poignancy and dramatic power.
Billy's mother died a while back. His father is a gruff, hard-scrabble coal miner. So is his older brother, Tony. To them, standing tough with the union is everything. It's learning to take a punch they understand, not learning to pirouette.
Grandma? Well, she's a little hard around the edges, too. But she remembers what it was to have dreams. She gives Billy the push he needs to follow his own.
And Mrs. Wilkinson, a ballet teacher who knows talent when she stumbles upon it, gives him the kick in the pants he also needs.
So, while the family's world is falling apart around them, Billy's world of possibility is opening up.
That's the story. Director Stephen Daldry depends on that and some beautiful lighting effects, rather than pretty scenery or fancy costumes. The visual dazzler is a lighting trick that here and there throws giant shadows of key players against the back wall.
Well, that and some really amazing dancing to an Elton John score.
Ben Cook, who played Billy before a crowd of about 1,440 Tuesday, shines as a tapper early on with his cross-dressing pal Michael (Jake Kitchin, very funny in “Express Yourself”). He does an amazing shadow ballet with an older version of himself, executed to perfection by Noah Long (best number in the show).
He closes the first act with a memorable modern dance of anger and frustration. He blows you away at a ballet audition, explaining what it feels like to dance (“Electricity”).
He's also a terrific young actor who makes you feel his anguish and confusion and ambition and heart.
As Grandma, Patti Perkins folded nostalgia and humor into her solo of remembrance, “We'd Go Dancin'.” Beautiful character work.
Rich Hebert, as Billy's dad, brings great feeling to “Deep Into the Ground,” as he remembers his wife. Janet Dickinson, as the ballet teacher, and Kat Hennessey, as Mum, break your heart just a little when singing “Dear Billy” with the boy.
Strong supporting players include Patrick Wetzel as the surprisingly limber ballet accompanist, Cullen R. Titmas as Billy's bitter brother, and Joel Blum as Billy's tough old boxing teacher.
Detailed ensemble work in many large-cast scenes and dances is exceptional, bringing the atmosphere of the strike to life, as well as the atmosphere of a small-town ballet school full of typical little girls.
A word to those who love to rush out when the curtain call starts: Stick around and give this cast the payoff it deserves. If you don't, you'll miss a knockout tap dance that involves the entire cast and is one of the best in the show.
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Billy Elliot the Musical
What: Broadway touring stage musical
Where: Orpheum Theater, 409 S. 16th St.
When: Tonight through Sunday. Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. tonight and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $25 to $85
Information: 402-345-0606, toll-free 866-434-8587, online at ticketomaha.com or at the Holland Performing Arts Center box office, 13th and Douglas Streets
Young ballet dancers warm-up for 30 minutes before each performance of Billy Elliot the Musical. We caught up with a few of the dancers minutes before the Opening Night performance in Omaha.