Fleet-footed "Billy Elliot" leapt into San Jose on Tuesday night and danced off with the audience's heart.
The blockbuster musical -- which kicks up its heels through Sunday at the Center for the Performing Arts -- may have lost some of its sharpness since it waltzed away with 10 Tony Awards in 2009, but there's no denying the tearful power of this blue-collar fairy tale. Directed by the nimble Stephen Daldry ("The Hours, "The Reader"), this is an old-fashioned dance musical that marries emotion, politics and ballet with electrifying results.
Based on the 2000 film, also directed by Daldry, "Billy" follows the dream of a little boy (Noah Parets) from a troubled family scraping by in a British town crushed by hardship. This is not a community with season tickets to the ballet. These are working-class families battling to put food on the table in an '80s coal-mining town. When the miners try to stand up for their rights, the riot police bust heads. When Billy's father (a magnetic Rich Hebert) bullies him into taking boxing, it's because he knows that he will have to fight for himself. He knows that one day he must send his son down into the mines for a destiny of hardship and grime.
Above ground, things are even bleaker. The union is being crushed, Margaret Thatcher is threatening to close down the mines for good, and the British economy seems poised to leave the common man in the dust.
For the record, Thatcher's legacy is not treated gently here. One of the most memorable bits in the show involves the miners' savagely funny Christmas skit. They all raise a glass to the prime minister with this withering toast: "We all celebrate today 'cause it's one day closer to your death!"
The musical's embrace of gallows humor helps ground its hard-nosed social analysis. This is a world where a violent clash between police and strikers bleeds into a little girl's dance class. This is a world where no one can afford to hope. Survival is what's at stake here.
So when Billy finds his calling amid the tutus and tinsel of Mrs. Wilkinson's (a wry turn by Janet Dickinson) second-rate dance class, the stage is set for a family meltdown. The lad knows he will be branded a sissy, but he also knows that nothing has ever given him such a feeling of grace and comfort.
Dance becomes his escape from a childhood ruled by fear and uncertainty.
Parets, who rotates through the title role with Ben Cook, Drew Minard and Mitchell Tobin, captures Billy's spark, the fire that drives him onward. He's also a gorgeous dancer who nails the show's demanding choreography with ease. If he, like some of the other young actors, struggles with dialect, the ensemble is still uniformly appealing. Patti Perkins shines particularly brightly as Billy's grandma, the only person in his life who understands the power of dance to transcend the mundane. Hebert lends depth to Billy's conflicted father. The intensity of their performances is what makes this such a cathartic experience.
Of course, dance itself remains the star of this show. From the soaring athleticism of the "Swan Lake" interlude, when Billy does a high-flying duet with his future self, to the tragic march of the miners back down into the pit in "Once We Were Kings," Peter Darling's movement is mesmerizing.
Make no mistake, there are times the tale edges into maudlin territory, the second half of the almost three-hour show drags a little and the finale remains overblown. Elton John's music never approaches the subtlety of Darling's choreography and Lee Hall's book and lyrics.
But musicals are a lot like people. When you love them, it's easy to overlook their flaws. And it's terribly hard not to love "Billy Elliot" from the first plié to the last pirouette.
Presented by Broadway San Jose
Through: May 12
Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose
Running time: 3 hours
Tickets: $20.50-$65.50, 408-792-4111, www.broadwaysanjose.com