From YouTube to Facebook to the blogosphere to “American Idol’’ and “America’s Got Talent,’’ there’s obviously no shortage today of platforms on which to vent your feelings, showcase your creativity, or generally strut your stuff. (One might even go so far as to call it a surplus).
If you’re the motherless son of a gruff British coal miner in the mid-1980s, however, and your family is fighting for economic survival in the middle of a bitter miners’ strike, finding an outlet for self-expression presents a somewhat steeper challenge.
The young protagonist of “Billy Elliot the Musical,’’ now at the Boston Opera House in a fine and stirring production directed by Stephen Daldry, makes the life-changing discovery that he has a gift for dance. Under the appraising eye of his flinty but good-hearted teacher, Billy practices his plies and pirouettes, aiming for an audition with the Royal Ballet School in London that could open up a wider future for him.
But because this is a musical with — of all unlikely things — a social conscience, Daldry and librettist Lee Hall do not allow the miners’ plight to just fade into the background. Instead, they keep a steady focus on the polarizing, soul-sapping effects of the strike and the grim realities of belonging to the working class at a time when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had essentially declared war on unions.
There is a surprising rigor and grit to Elton John’s score that dovetail with Hall’s unapologetically populist lyrics. Anthemic tunes like “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher’’ (complete with a gigantic representation of the Iron Lady), “The Stars Look Down,’’ and “Solidarity’’ may have you tapping your toes and clenching your fists at the same time. “Solidarity’’ in particular is ingeniously executed, merging in one production number the passions of the miners, the implacability of the police, and the uncertain aspirations of the youthful ballet class to which Billy belongs.
Moments like that help “Billy Elliot the Musical’’ dance past a few sluggish spots, some too-convenient changes of heart by certain characters when it suits the needs of the plot, and the scenes of all-out mawkishness when Billy is visited by his late mother.
Hall adapted his own screenplay for “Billy Elliot,’’ a 2000 film directed by Daldry, to create “Billy Elliot the Musical,’’ which won 10 Tony Awards in 2009, including best musical. The show ran for more than three years on Broadway before closing in January.
Billy was played on opening night at the Opera House by Kylend Hetherington, who handled the triple challenge of singing, dancing, and acting with great finesse and sensitivity. (He will alternate in the role with Ben Cook, Zach Manske, and Noah Parets of Sharon). Hetherington absolutely nailed “Electricity,’’ the showstopper, and he literally took flight during a sequence where Billy matches dance moves with his older self. (Peter Darling’s choreography is imaginative and expressive throughout).
Janet Dickinson is a major asset as Mrs. Wilkinson, the crusty dance teacher who sees the potential in the coal miner’s son who bumbles into her class one day. Hip cocked, cigarette in hand, Dickinson’s Wilkinson is utterly devoid of illusions but not, somehow, of dreams — at least for Billy. Cameron Clifford is winningly uninhibited as a friend of Billy’s with a taste for cross-dressing; their rendition of “Expressing Yourself’’ is one of the show’s high points.
Strong performances are also delivered by Rich Hebert as Billy’s father, Cullen R. Titmas as his brother, and Patti Perkins as his grandmother. Perkins brings poignancy to “We’d Go Dancing,’’ a reminiscence of Grandma’s late, generally unlamented husband, who metamorphosed into a different, better man when they were dancing together in their youthful days.
It didn’t last (“In the morning we were sober,’’ Grandma sings), but the song, like the show of which it’s a part, is persuasive testimony to the power of dance to transport you somewhere else.