BWW Reviews: Baz Luhrmann's STRICTLY BALLROOM THE MUSICAL
"A life lived in fear is a life half lived" or so say the characters of Strictly Ballroom in both the musical and the 1992 original film. Anyone who has ever seen anything created by Baz Luhrmann would agree that Baz never does anything by halves and he is certainly fearless. To take one of your most popular and iconic films and turn it into a stage musical requires courage and a whole lot of confidence and creativity, none of which Baz Luhrmann lacks. The resulting musical, which opened Saturday night, is one that will please and entertain fans of the iconic film and will also create a new generation of fans of the story in its new form.
In case you've lived under a rock for twenty years or were born in the 2000s, the plot of Strictly Ballroom revolves around Scott Hastings, a talented amateur ballroom dancer whose overbearing family and 'friends' try to control and push in the direction they see fit for him whilst he dreams of being an individual and dancing his own steps. To the horror of seemingly everyone, Scott finds a partner in a beginner dancer from his studio, the wallflower Fran whose Spanish family help Scott discover the true meanings of passion and rhythm.
Set in the early 1990s 'meat raffle at the leagues club' era in Australia, Strictly Ballroom the Musical is purposefully daggy in parts from the outfits of Scott's father Doug to the huge posters of fake dance clubs and 1990s advertisements adorning the walls of the Lyric Theatre. The daggy, however, is completely contrasted by the overwhelming sparkle. The show is certainly not lacking in glitz and glamour. In fact, I don't think I have ever seen that much sparkle in the one room. Costume and set designer, Catherine Martin (Oscar winner and alumni of the best high school, North Sydney Girls...okay that bit I am a little bit biased about) has again showed that when it comes to creating an outfit or a scene, there is no better. The costumes are sunning and the various sets used are effective for setting the scene and the transitions between them are smooth.
A musical is only as good as its music and this was what I most eagerly anticipated about Strictly Ballroom the Musical. Would the original music both stay true to the heart of the much-loved movie and also meet the high demands placed on a musical soundtrack? Would there be a notable '11 o'clock number' or just-before-interval crowd pleaser that would become synonymous with the show alike that of "Defying Gravity" in Wicked?
The answer to both these questions is, well, sort of. In terms of its songs, Strictly Ballroom the Musical isn't quite the traditional musical full of big numbers and music that feels consistent but then that is Baz, he doesn't follow; he leads.
The songs of Strictly Ballroom the Musical are eclectic and diverse, being written by a variety of song writers including comedian Eddie Perfect, Elliott Wheeler and 16-time Grammy Awards winner David Foster. The unique talents of each lyricist were used to full effect with, for example, Eddie Perfect playing to his comedic strengths by creating witty and snarky lyrics which added humour and light-entertainment mostly through the secondary characters.
Whilst "Time After Time", "Love is in the Air" and "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps" provided a great nostalgic shout-out to the original movie and were seamlessly incorporated into the plot development, the show highlight song-wise for me was a new original number, "Beautiful Surprise", co-written by David Foster, MoZella, Bernie Herms and Linda Thompson. I have not been able to get its appropriately beautiful lyrics out of my head and I look forward to the release of a cast recording so I can hear it once again.
Normally in reviews I find myself raving about lead cast members and Thomas Lacey (Scott) and Phoebe Panaretos (Fran) were solid in their respective roles but it was the supporting characters that really stole the show. The applause at curtain call suggested that many agreed with me that the most convincing and entertaining performers were Drew Forsythe as Scott's daggy father Doug Hastings, Heather Mitchell as Scott's overbearing mother Shirley and Robert Grubb as the conniving president of the Australian Dance Federation Barry Fife.
Vocally, the stand out for me was Natalie Gamsu as Fran's Abuela (Spanish for Grandmother) who earnt numerous shouts of approval from the audience seemingly every time she opened her mouth.
Strictly Ballroom the Musical is a fun night out with quality acting, engaging music, spectacular choreography and entertaining audience participation. Audience participation has been tried by many shows of late and I've often felt it too forced and detrimental but Luhrmann has used it to great effect. I enjoyed the novelty of the different coloured seats in the theatre and being allocated a dance club to support. For this reason, I must include a special shout out to the ensemble performers representing Worrawee, in particular the very talented Cristina D'Agostino who like much of the ensemble was flawless in each of her routines.
Overall, this show has all the signs it will be a success, particularly in the overseas market that can't get enough of all things Australia. If I were to make one suggestion of improvement it would be to make the last dance number, one of the most iconic scenes from Australian film, bigger. It didn't quite have the over-the-top epic production feel that I expected. The dance was no more complicated or impressive than dances earlier on his the show when really it should stand out and end the show with a bang. But that's just if I am nit-picking.
If you want to be entertained, let the king of entertaining, Baz Luhrmann do so yet again and get yourself to Lyric Theatre to see Strictly Ballroom the Musical.
For more information and tickets see: http://www.strictlyballroomthemusical.com/
Photo credit: Jeff Busby http://www.strictlyballroomthemusical.com/about/gallery/