'Camp' Billy Elliot musical hits wrong note in America

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The Independent Culture

But Billy Elliot the Musical has failed to make such a positive impact on the other side of the Atlantic. The New Yorker magazine has launched a scathing attack on the Elton John show, describing it as "mawkish", "repetitive" and "camp".

The verdict of John Lahr, the senior theatre critic for New York's most influential magazine, could damage the musical's chances of a transfer to Broadway.

In a two-page denunciation of the show, Lahr, who has written 17 books on theatre, dismisses Billy Elliot as being riddled with "narrative vulgarities", "thematic bankruptcy" and general "sloppiness".

His verdict clashes not only with critics' praise for the £5m production based on the British film, but also the iconic status the show has gained among gay theatre-goers, who love the chorus line of coal miners dressed in tutus.

Lahr, on the other hand, says that the cross-dressing number that Billy performs with a young, gay friend is no more than "homophobic fun".

He writes that Stephen Daldry, the director, Lee Hall, the writer, and Peter Darling, the choreographer, are "novices", but instead of the expected recipe for disaster, he finds the performance a "recipe for a muddle masquerading as a major event".

Lahr, the son of the actor Bert Lahr, is bemused by ads for the musical carrying a quote from Charles Spencer of The Daily Telegraph describing Billy Elliot as: "The greatest British musical I have ever seen."

He wonders aloud what on earth constitutes a great British musical. "Salad Days? The Boy Friend? Cats?" he asks. "The British love musicals," he writes. "They just don't do them very well. The jazz of American optimism ... is somehow alien to the ironic British spirit."

Whereas the American musical is the expression of a land of plenty, England is a land of scarcity - "the Land of No". The "narrative vulgarities" have been overlooked, he says, in favour of capturing the audience's imagination. "This, it seems to me, explains how a show with a mawkish, melodramatic book, and without a single memorable melody or lyric, could have worked its way so deeply into the public imagination."

Daldry's "narrative desperation" forces him to borrow from a "tattered grab bag of avant-garde tricks", Lahr writes, in order to cover up the "lacklustre book and music".

While he does not take offence to the show being branded a commercial hit, the critic wants his readers to know that it should not be perceived as excellent.

"When the most delightful part of a show is the curtain call - a 10-minute knees-up, with the entire cast, including the miners, now thankfully liberated from their earnestness, dressed in tutus - you know you're in trouble," he concludes.

Lahr's downcast view was not shared by all Americans. Ray Bennett, of The Hollywood Reporter, described it as "the most irresistible show in ages".

Elton John's public relations representative, Gary Farrow, shrugged off criticism from The New Yorker.

He said: "Mr Lahr is entitled to his opinion, but he is the only one so we do not care. It is not representative of the reviews we have had which have described it as the greatest musical ever."