The stage version of the classic Australian film is colourful and entertaining but lacks pizzazz and dramatic intensity.
Image via www.strictlyballroomthemusical.com
Opening before an enthusiastic Melbourne crowd on Saturday, Strictly Ballroom the Musical revisits Baz Luhrmann’s acclaimed play-turned-film of the same name; a colourful and engaging story about the value of individuality and following your dreams. Some of the magic of the film has been lost in its adaptation as a musical, but the result is still mildy entertaining, albeit unchallenging and a little loose.
Ballroom dancer Scott Hastings (Thomas Lacey) dreams of winning the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championship, urged on by his dance teacher mother Shirley (Heather Mitchell). But instead of conforming to the strictly enforced steps demanded by Federation President Barry Fife (Robert Grubb in fine form), Scott dreams of dancing his own steps, much to the horror of his dancing partner Liz (Sophia Katos). Amidst the chaos, ugly duckling Fran (Phoebe Panaretos) is drawn to Scott, and as they practice together, dancing the pasodoble under the watchful eye of Fran’s Spanish family, love slowly blossoms between them despite the challenges the conniving Fife places in their path.
Catherine Martin’s sets and costume design extend off the stage into the auditorium, and are one of the best things about the show, which has been tweaked and streamlined since its premiere season in Sydney. The running time has been reduced by approximately 20 minutes, with a new opening number by Eddie Perfect added, but overall the production still feels loose, which drains the story of dramatic tension. The two-dimensional characters and thin plot don’t help proceedings, with the production’s lack of substance especially noticeable after interval, where the intercutting between plot threads – a technique which works on film but less successfully on stage – causes proceedings to sag instead of thrill.
Thomas Lacey impresses vocally and physically as Scott; a short scene where he dances with reflections of himself in a series of mirrors is especially striking, but feels under-developed and tacked on in the overall scheme of things. As Fran, Phoebe Panaretos sings beautifully, though her dancing lacks the fluidity the role requires; and while the pair have a degree of chemistry, they fail to set the stage alight.
Despite the production’s flaws, some moments still delight: Scott and Fran’s early rehearsal, incorporating Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ injects some much-needed emotion into proceedings, while the first act climaxes with the genuinely thrilling ‘A Life Lived in Fear’ sequence, incorporating Bizet’s Habanera, in which Fernando Mira as Fran’s father Rico, and Natalie Gamsu as his friend Abuela put most of the cast to shame with their physicality, sensuality and powerful vocals. Other performances are generally strong, with the dancing of particular note thanks to choreographer John O’Connell, though musically the broad mix of composers fails to gel – also a flaw of producers' Global Creatures deeply problematic previous work, King Kong.
As a film, Strictly Ballroom celebrated the vitality of a multicultural Australia that had not yet been embraced by the Anglo-Saxon mainstream; here, the close-mindedness and homophobia of that old white world – typified by the monstrous Barry Fife – is exaggerated to such a degree that it lacks any sense of menace or reality. Coupled with Martin’s camp and colourful costumes, and a production that seems too intent on re-creating certain visual motifs from the film at the expense of on-stage dramatic impact, the result is a production that’s larger than life but which lacks the fine grain required to give the story weight and real emotion.
Strictly Ballroom is sickly-sweet and colourful, but insubstantial and unsatisfying. It’s the fairy-floss of musicals, and will require significantly more work, especially in its second half, if it is to transfer successfully to Broadway or the West End in the future.
Rating: 2 stars out of 5
Strictly Ballroom The Musical
Book by Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce
Original score & arrangements: Elliott Wheeler
Starring Thomas Lacey, Phoebe Panaretos, Bob Baines, Drew Forsythe, Natalie Gamsu, Robert Grubb, Fernando Mira, Heather Mitchell and Mark Owen-Taylor
Additional musical numbers by David Foster, Sia Furler, Eddie Perfect and others
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne
From 17 January