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Musical ‘Billy Elliot’ irresistible

You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll want to strap on some tap shoes. (Or maybe even don a tutu.)

Yes, “Billy Elliot” — at The Smith Center through Sunday — is just that irresistible. Even when it’s working a bit too hard to ingratiate itself with the audience.

It really doesn’t need to, because the Tony-winning musical has so many built-in rooting interests — and so many winning qualities — you wish its creators had resisted the urge toward overkill.

But that’s showbiz.

Based on the gritty British movie of 2000, the musical follows young Billy (played on opening night by 12-year-old Mitchell Tobin , who alternates in the role with Ben Cook, Drew Minard and Noah Parets ), a motherless coal miner’s son from the north of England who discovers his destiny in dance.

Much to the chagrin of his father (a hearty Rich Hebert , a veteran of Paris Las Vegas’ long-gone “We Will Rock You”) and surly brother (Cullen R. Titmas ), both embroiled in the 1984 strike triggered by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s threatened shutdown of the coal pits.

Billy’s grudgingly taking after-school boxing lessons at the local community center.

But once he catches sight of Mrs. Wilkinson (a tart yet tender Janet Dickinson ) putting her little tutu-clad charges through their pirouettes and plies, Billy can’t help but join in— and stand out.

Neither Billy’s father nor brother — nor their fellow miners — understand. But his grandma (the endearingly addled Patti Perkins) remembers the delight of going dancing on Saturday nights, thereby escaping the dreary drudgery of daily life. If only for a few shining hours.

Besides, as Billy’s pal Michael (irrepressible Jake Kitchin , alternating in the role with Sam Poon ) reasons, “what the hell is wrong with expressing yourself, for trying to be free?”

Each of these pivotal characters gets his or her chance to shine in musical numbers by turns jaunty (“Shine”), poignant (“Dear Billy,” in which Billy recalls his beloved mum) or stirring (“Once We Were Kings”). Even Mr. Braithwaite (Kilty Reidy ), Mrs. Wilkinson’s seemingly mild-mannered rehearsal pianist, gets his chance to break out, proving that he — along with each of us, at least vicariously — was “Born to Boogie.”

And if the score (with music by Elton John and lyrics by Lee Hall, who also adapted his screenplay) doesn’t always soar the way the dancers do, it gets the job done, shouldering much of the character development along the way.

Hall and director Stephen Daldry (who received an Oscar nomination and a Tony Award for his work) come up with some ingenious ways to integrate the story’s overlapping conflicts: the labor strife enveloping the entire town and Billy’s yearning to follow his own dream, even if it means saying goodbye to everything he’s ever known.

That’s a lot of baggage for a musical to haul — and “Billy Elliot” manages well, even if it never quite balances the two. (Ian MacNeil’s flexible set and Rick Fisher’s dramatic, shadow-casting lighting help link the intertwined storylines.)

As with any good musical, however, it’s the numbers that tell the story.

And the performers telling this particular story — aided in no small measure by Peter Darling’s Tony-winning choreography — bring irresistible spirit to the proceedings.

Chief among them, of course, is Billy himself, who (as embodied opening night by the exceptionally expressive Tobin) captures all the frustration, all the yearning, all the gleeful abandon of breaking free — and breaking into dance.

By “Billy Elliot’s” end, you’ll know just how he feels.

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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