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Broadway brings the heat

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Triple digit heat waves in Manhattan may slow down the tourists scrambling to cram in a dinner and a show — or locals simply panting to exit the Times Square subway station. But they haven't dampened enthusiasm along the Great White Way. Three of the musicals headed for Charlotte in the PAC's 2010-11 Broadway Lights season — Billy Elliot (opening on Jan. 12), In the Heights (Feb. 15), and Next to Normal (July 12) — are still going strong in Gotham.

We squeezed four musicals into a recent three-day pilgrimage to the theater district, including two productions, Million Dollar Quartet and La Cage aux Folles, that hadn't seen the light of day — or the chill of night — when we last visited in January. We also managed to catch up with Billy Elliot at its 703rd performance, so I can assure you that Elton John's latest is the best new musical I've seen on Broadway since Spring Awakening adorned the 2007-08 season.

Here's the lowdown:

Billy Elliot: The Musical (***3/4 out of 4): Set against the backdrop of the agonizing 1984 coal miner strike in Northeast England during the dreary Thatcher Era, Billy is a lad who discovers the ballet — and an amazing aptitude for it — when he lingers overlong after a boxing class. His hardhat dad, whose 50p for boxing lessons has been rechanneled to the gracious hands of ballet mistress Mrs. Wilkinson, is outraged.

Billy's mum is dead, and we sense that dad's staunch opposition might be softened if she were alive. Elder brother Tony is the more formidable obstacle, virulently homophobic in his prejudices, although his brother is straight. When Billy earns the opportunity to audition for the Royal Ballet School, Tony is deeply ashamed. And where's the money going to come from to send him there? But all the Elliots are keenly aware that their way of life is imperiled. When union workers go on strike, there's plenty of time for reflection.

Naturally, the story is a beautiful bouquet to dance and an affirmation of the primacy of the arts. But there's also a paean to pursuing your dreams that universalizes Billy's struggle, and there's a working-class nobility to Wilkinson's crusade to help Billy escape the town and the life where she is trapped. Kate Hennig brings a Thatcher-like steeliness and pugnacity to Wilkinson that steers us far from sentimentality, and Tony Award winner Gregory Jbara has returned to the role of Dad, proving himself worthy of the prize in a richly nuanced performance.

More than any movie can be, the musical productions and tours of Billy Elliot are mind-boggling affirmations of youth and talent. Three young actors shared the 2009 Tony Award for the title role, and five altogether different boys were listed on the night we attended. Of course, all the ballerinas in supporting roles are expected to be better drilled than a grimly realistic film, and they are.

Although one might argue that colorblind casting undermines the impression that the elder Elliots are ignorant and prejudiced, I was glad that I saw African American Liam Redhead in the role, just to show how well it works. Redhead is pure grace and joy, and his presence only throws Jbara's excellence — and the seething Jeff Kready's fine Tony Elliot — into stronger relief.

Sir Elton's music, especially the miners' anthems, triumphantly overachieves. If you've already decided, on the basis of last year's Tony Awards telecast, that "Angry Dance" is Billy's pre-eminent showstopper, the climactic "Electricity" may catch you by surprise.

Million Dollar Quartet (***1/4) — Yes, boys and bobbysoxers, it's true that Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins were together at the Sun Records studio in Memphis on December 4, 1956. It's also true that Sun producer Sam Phillips had the presence of mind to roll the tape and preserve the impromptu jam session.

There was a bit of legend built into the original CD release of the tape back in 1990, long after The King had died. Though Johnny Cash appears on the album cover of Million Dollar Quartet and the subsequent Complete Million Dollar Quartet, neither his voice nor his guitar is captured on mic — if he even participated. As for the music on these albums, it is a treasurable document but hardly a musical treasure.

Enter writer/director Floyd Mutrux, who had the concept that the first great summit meeting in rock history could be a musical, and writer/rock historian Colin Escott, who helped Mutrux in gathering together enough scraps of history to make the preposterous story line of Million Dollar Quartet seem totally authentic to anyone who knows absolutely nothing about the 50s or the beginnings of rock 'n' roll.

Historians may wince at all the shiftin' and fabricatin', but rock enthusiasts will revel in all the shakin' that's going on at the Nederlander Theatre. Levi Krauss plays hardly more than a supporting role as Jerry Lee Lewis — fittingly, because Lewis was merely Perkins' pianist at the Million Dollar session — but he steals the show with The Killer's mic straddling, stool kicking, elbow-and-foot keyboard pounding antics. We are kept waiting until we hear the monster hits, "Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." But those iconic rockers are bonuses, never performed at the actual Million Dollar session, and thanks to Mutrux and Escott, Krauss portrays a Jerry Lee transformed into a comically lascivious egotist — with a stray mention of his notorious backwoods escapades — before he breaks loose.

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