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Dance skills take centre stage at Billy Elliot opening

Sir Elton John wears a tutu as he joins the cast of the stage adaptation Billy Elliot The Musical for their curtain call following the show's premiere in Toronto on March 1, 2011.

Chris Young/Chris Young/The Canadian Press

4 out of 4 stars

Billy Elliot The Musical

Book and lyrics by Lee Hall

Music by Elton John

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Directed by Stephen Daldry

Starring Cesar Corrales, Kate Hennig

At the Canon Theatre in Toronto

Play at a glance: Lee Hall's award-winning stage adaptation (with songs by a certain Elton John) of his 2000 movie about an 11 year-old boy who falls in love with ballet, while the British mining town he lives in falls apart. With the help of dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (Kate Hennig), Billy (Cesar Corrales) faces down the opposition to his dream by his working-class father (Armand Schultz) and brother (Patrick Mulvey), while they face down Margaret Thatcher in the 1984 UK miners' strike.

First impression: Don't let the profusion of tap-dancing children in tutus mislead you: This is a hard-nosed, rough-around-the-edges show about the tension between collective responsibility and individual passions. Sure, Elton John's score is unfocused and the tone swings wildly between coarse and sentimental - but the story is very strong and the dance scenes soar right up into the stratosphere. Choreographer Peter Darling earns a place up there with the theatrical greats like Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse with this one.

Highlights: Cesar Corrales - one of four boys alternating as Billy - was uber-impressive on opening night. Forget Natalie Portman trying to pass as a ballerina in Black Swan - this kid is the real deal. Hard to know which of Darling's numbers he danced was most exciting, but the dream ballet and his "angry dance" were highlights. Among the good supporting cast, Canadian Hennig really gets the mix of gruff and good-hearted in Mrs. Wilkinson.

The nitpicks: The aforementioned tipsy tone and so-so score by the star composer. There's the occasional impenetrability of those northern England Geordie accents - but not getting a watered-down North American version of the show is worth the odd moment of confusion.

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Audience instant reaction: Well, they were giving standing ovations between numbers in the second act, so pretty darn enthusiastic. I don't think it was just because Rocketman himself was in the house, either.

Questions for post-show dinner or drinks: Will enrolment rise through the roof at the National Ballet School after Billy Elliot has been playing in Toronto in for a while (and it deserves to be here for a very long while)? And in whose interests is it to pit "ordinary working people" against the arts?

Critic's instant reaction: Four stars (rating subject to change - for full review, see Thursday's Globe and Mail)

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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