Friday, May 1, 2009

New York postcard No. 3: 'Billy Elliot' a certain smash

Haydn Gwynne and David Alvarez in Billy Elliot.
(Photo by David Scheinmann)

Editor's note: Palm Beach ArtsPaper's Hap Erstein is on assignment in New York.

By Hap Erstein

NEW YORK -- Some seasons there is suspense over the eventual winner of the Best Musical Tony Award, but this year if Billy Elliot does not win, and win big, it will be cause for a federal investigation.

I have just seen the show and, while 9 to 5 and Next to Normal have their advocates, to me they do not come close to the dramatic power, emotional wallop and choreographic inventiveness of this stage adaptation of the 2000 Stephen Daldry-directed film about the 11-year-old son of a striking miner from Northern England who yearns to become a ballet dancer.

Screenwriter Lee Hall wrote the show's script and the lyrics to Elton John's pulsing score, and he retained an impressive amount of the dark, dramatic plot of the plight of the miners, which might have evaporated in lesser hands.

Four young performers -- including Palm Beach Gardens' Tommy Batchelor -- share the title role, carrying the massive show on their tiny shoulders, with a handful of major dance numbers in various styles, from tap to classical ballet. I saw David Alvarez, an uncannily accomplished kid, but then they probably all are.

Besides the dances (choregraphed by Peter Darling, probably not the Peter Pan character), there are some riotously funny sequences (the duet Expressing Yourself) and very touching, lump-in-the-throat scenes (If you can keep a dry eye during Billy's reading of the letter from his deceased mother, you're tougher than I am).

You would never know there's a recession on from the packed Imperial Theatre on a Thursday night. Billy Elliot should be there for a long time to come, helped by a handful or two of Tonys.

* * *

Steve Zahn and Jennifer Aniston in Management.

Before the show, I caught a screening of Management, a formula-defying romantic comedy starring Jennifer Aniston and Steve Zahn, written and directed by Stephen Belber, playwright of Tape and co-writer of The Laramie Project.

She plays a traveling saleswoman of motel artwork who gets stalked by Zahn, who works as a maintenance guy at his parents Arizona motel. Why she is attracted at all to him is a mystery, but then she has a history of involvement with inappropriate men (Woody Harrelson).

Then after two-thirds of the way through the movie, Zahn decides to becme a Buddhist priest. Don't ask. Still, there's something about he movie that works its way under the skin, making it hard to entirely dismiss.
* * *

The morning began at Ellen's Stardust Diner, 51st and Broadway, a time-warp spot from the 1950s with waiters and waitresses who serenade the customers with show tunes. Today, several of the songs had specialty ad-lib lyrics with "swine flu" punch lines.

A little disconcerting at breakfast. A genuine only-in-New York experience.

Friday's plan: Take a Spanish lesson at the bilingual West Side Story and hit that discount icon, The Strand Book Store.

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