What's Worth Watching: Billy Elliot Live on PBS for Friday, October 23

Matt Roush
Billy Elliot the Musical Live
Adam Sorenson

Billy Elliot the Musical Live, Friday, Oct. 23, 9/8c, PBS (check local listings at pbs.org)

After 10 years, thousands of performances around the world (including a successful, Tony-winning Broadway run from 2008-2012) and at least 100 young boys playing the triple-threat title role on stage, Elton John's terrifically moving version of Billy Elliot the Musical finally makes it to TV courtesy of Great Performances. (This particular performance, from the Victoria Palace Theatre in London's West End where it is still playing, was originally broadcast live in movie theaters in the U.K. and elsewhere a year ago last month.)

Like the 2000 movie on which it's based, Billy Elliot is an altogether winning combination of salty (though much of the explicit language is silenced for PBS), sweet and sentimental, as it depicts a young lad—wonderfully played here by 11-year-old Elliott Hanna—from a rough British mining town who defies convention by tapping into his inner artist, the soul of a dancer, as the community around him rages in turmoil from a miners' strike. The conflict within and without Billy's world is memorably depicted in the number "Solidarity," with Peter Darling's outstanding choreography showing the clashing police and miners aping the ballet moves Billy is still struggling to master. As Billy's teacher, the chain-smoking Mrs. Wilkinson, Ruthie Henshall is a hard-bitten treat. And as a nod to the past, one of the original trio of boys playing Billy, Liam Mower, returns to play Older Billy.

Even if you've seen Billy Elliot live before, you'll want to stay to the end of this great performance, because to celebrate the show's longevity, the final curtain is extended to a climactic mash-up in which 25 former and current Billys take the stage, tapping their hearts out to the audience's delight. It's always poignant when a group of Billys becomes too old and must step aside for a new generation, but this rousing finale reminds us that once a Billy, always a Billy.

Now how long must we wait until Matilda gets filmed for TV?