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June 23, 2010 - by Elliott Richards
With its music by Elton John and book and lyrics by Lee Hall, the Broadway musical Billy Elliot is as much an emotional father-son tale as it is a coming-of-age story about its title character, an 11-year-old drawn to ballet dancing in a northern England mining town in the mid-1980s.
And, while Billy dances with a compelling mixture of beauty, urgency and muscular aggressiveness, his father (played by veteran actor Gregory Jbara) objects, remaining steeped in the male stereotyping in the local macho culture -- only to be won over in the course of the show.
His eventual embrace of his son’s huge talent is a magical transformation. You see a vivid palette of emotions on Jbara’s face, a rubbery instrument that easily conveys regret, anger, sadness and full-blown amazement.
As an actor, Jbara, who appeared on Broadway in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels a few years back, says he does not try hard to show his character’s feelings but admits his own paternal sentiments may be too strong to mask.
“It’s such a gift to surrender to my awe for this child and watch him dance,” says Jbara, who won the 2009 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical, one of Billy Elliot’s 10 Tonys. “It’s easy to get to that place. I get to take that ride every night and fall in love with that boy. I’m imbued with such amazing pride. I’m feeling it as an actor.”
Jbara has worked with about 10 actors who alternate performing as Billy including the original three who accepted the Tony in 2009 for Best Actor in a Musical.
“People identify with the show’s characters,” he says, noting that these are working-class people -- originally portrayed in the 2000 dramatic film and later when the smash musical debuted in London in 2005 -- dealing with a devastating economy. “The Anglo-specific things have been tempered and the socially relevant British jokes were eliminated,” he continues, “so it’s the family relationships, the community, and the struggle of the people against the leaders that we as Americans identify with.”
He adds that the scenes between Billy and his dead mother resonate with anyone who has lost an important family member. And, he says, he is struck by what a certain demographic has been telling him.
“I’ve been stopped on the street by more men than any other show I’ve ever done in New York because it’s an unusually strong father-son story,” he says. “ And, of course, happy endings are nice.”
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