In 1984, a group of second year NIDA students presented a one-act play, based on the director’s experience of growing up in a family obsessed with competitive ballroom dancing. The director was Baz Luhrmann, and the play, Strictly Ballroom, went on to become one of the most beloved Australian films of all time. Thirty years after the original student production, Strictly Ballroom has returned to the stage as a new, blockbuster musical, reminding us all that a life lived in fear is a life half lived.
Producer Carmen Pavlovic points out that ever since the film’s runaway success at the 1992 Cannes Festival, the rights to create a full blown stage version of Strictly Ballroom have been one of the most hotly contested assets in Australian theatre. It’s not hard to see why.
Drawing inspiration from fairytales and the ‘universal myth’, where heroes triumph over adversity and ugly ducklings turn into beautiful swans, the story is a relentless joyride from suburbia to liberation. Throw in a dark family secret, an exotic forbidden love and some classic nostalgic pop and if not for the strine accents, you could easily be forgiven for thinking you were watching a Disney cartoon.
The scale of this production is certainly not short on ambition, suggesting the producers have much bigger plans in mind. The show is co-produced by Baz Luhrman’s own company Bazmark, and the relatively young Global Creatures, responsible for some of the most technically audacious productions seen in this country in recent years (King Kong, War Horse, How to Train Your Dragon).
In this new musical version, director Luhrmann and wife Catherine Martin have clearly decided not to tinker with the original formula, with the action on stage closely following the look and feel of the movie – as Federation President Barry Fife might say, “let’s not start chucking the babies out with the bathtub”. Apart from the addition of a number of new songs, even the music sounds more or less the same, with the classics Time after time and Love is in the air, receiving the same musical treatment as they did in 1992. Although, unlike the film, instead of simply providing a soundtrack to the action, in this version the songs are woven into the dialog and sung by the actors.
The clever set design (Catherine Martin) opens up and comes apart like pieces of a giant dolls house, recombining and revolving as required, to expose the interior/exterior worlds of the characters. This stage production even includes a recreation of the film's rooftop dance scene, complete with a giant flickering Coke billboard. The costumes too (also by Martin) are magnificently over the top, befitting the hyper-saturated flamboyance of the competitive ballroom dance universe.
For the most part the production zings along, hitting all the right comedic and emotional notes, while the cast is solid within their caricatured roles. Thomas Lacey as Scott Hastings, in the role made famous by Paul Mercurio, has a fine singing voice and dances well, although at times lacks a little charisma, and the critical relationship between Scott and Fran, is not yet fully realised.
Relative newcomer Phoebe Panaretos is a stand out as the shy Fran (just Fran), who gains in confidence as the play progresses, from the awkward pimply beginner to the commanding lead lady, culminating in a wrenching duet with Lacey, Beautiful Surprise, one of the new additions to the score.
Veteran stage performer Robert Grubb is suitably commanding as Federation President Barry Fife who in this version gains a somewhat Teutonic anthem, Dance to win, sung with nationalistic zeal to reiterate the authority of the Federation. Heather Mitchell as Scott’s mother, Shirley Hastings, strikes a fine balance between poise and complete crisis.
Natalie Gamsu brings heart and genuine warmth to her role as Abuela, Fran’s grand-mother, while Fernando Mira steps into the small but pivotal role of Fran’s father and Scott’s flamenco teacher, played in the film by legendary Antonio Vargas. There are strong performances also from Tyler Coppin, Andrew Cook, Mark Owen-Taylor and Drew Forsythe as Scott’s father, Doug.
By the final frantic scene, there’s a lot of loose ends to tie up and the staging gets a little murky, lacking the clarity and pacing of the film. The audience too, already familiar with the show’s climactic ending, couldn’t help but pre-empt the action, robbing the play of one of its more genuinely poignant moments.
While there are no doubt plenty of good commercial reasons for drawing on the nostalgic good-will built up by the movie, such a move does invite dangerous comparisons – not to mention criticism from those hoping for something more daring from the great Baz Luhrmann. Does Strictly Ballroom break new musical theatre ground? Not really. Does that matter? Absolutely not. Strictly Ballroom – The Musical is as full of joy and just as feel-good as the original. Like the film, it’s not without its flaws – but there’s so much in it to like, its hard to imagine Strictly Ballroom – The Musical will be anything other than a dead set smash.
Global Creatures and Bazmark present
STRICTLY BALLROOM THE MUSICAL
Director Baz Luhrmann
Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre, The Star
Times: Tuesday at 7pm; Wednesday at 1pm & 8pm; Thursday at 8pm | Friday at 8pm; Saturday at 2pm & 8pm; Sunday at 3pm
Tickets: Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday Evenings $60 - $135 | Wednesday Matinee $55 - $125 | Friday, Saturday & Sunday $70 - $145
Bookings: Ticketmaster.com.au | 1300 795 267