BWW Review: U.S. Premiere of STRICTLY BALLROOM at Hale Centre Theatre is Fabulous
Hale Centre Theatre's U.S. premiere of Baz Luhrmann's STRICTLY BALLROOM THE MUSICAL dazzles on its Centre Stage following productions in Australia and on the West End. The direction, choreography, lighting, set, and costumes--all created specifically for Hale Centre Theatre's new production--are beyond fabulous.
Baz Luhrmann's STRICTLY BALLROOM THE MUSICAL (created by Baz Luhrmann, book by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce) is based on the cult classic 1992 film that paved the way for Baz Luhrmann's MOULIN ROUGE (currently spectacularly staged on Broadway by the same producers as STRICTLY BALLROOM). Scott Hastings is at the top of the Australian ballroom world, having trained most of his life to win an international dance trophy that is now right at his fingertips. But when he decides he wants to showcase his own moves rather than sticking to the officially sanctioned steps, his partner quits. Should he try his own choreography with the encouraging beginner Fran, or should he play it safe like everyone else around him?
The show might be more precisely named Baz Luhrmann's STRICTLY BALLROOM THE PLAY WITH MUSIC, but that doesn't quite have the same ring to it. The book is delightful campy fun with enough gravitas to raise the stakes and feel for the characters. It is peppered with dozens of well-known pop songs that are mostly well integrated into the presentation, though they are almost entirely sung by one narrator character, Wally Strand, like a movie soundtrack. The decision from the original creative team to utilize music in this way makes sense as it allows the dancing to be at the forefront, but it doesn't make for a satisfying book musical in which the characters sing their thoughts and emotions.
Conlon Bonner as Wally Strand (double cast with Quinn Dietlein) has a heavy load to carry as essentially the only singer of an entire catalogue of pop hits in various styles from "Let's Dance," "Dancing with Myself," and "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" to "Love is in the Air," "Time After Time," and "Sugar Sugar." Although some songs fit his voice better than others, and it is surely tiring to perform nonstop in this way, Bonner thrills the crowd throughout the show with his versatile, velvety smooth vocals. The live band is equally impressive.
The story revolves around Scott Hastings, which is a role that demands charisma, strength, vulnerability, and an extremely high bar of dance training and technique. Eric Ascione (double cast with Noah Bradford) delivers all this in spades. His remarkable performance is one that's hard to tear your eyes from.
The large supporting cast is filled with great performers, including Payton Prince as Fran (double cast with Serena Kozusko), Julia Jolley as Shirley Hastings (double cast with Claire Kenny), BJ Whimpey as Barry Fife (double cast with Benjamin J. Henderson), and many more.
In an added treat, Chelsie Hightower, star of SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE and DANCING WITH THE STARS, performs as Tina Sparkle most Mondays through Thursdays. Her double, Alexis Burton, is also a highly trained dancer who has performed on AMERICA'S GOT TALENT and WORLD OF DANCE.
The ensemble is filled with dancers who have also performed on these television shows, as well as a number of national dance tours. The level of talent is high, which is to be hoped for in the ballroom dance mecca that is Utah.
The production is staged marvelously by director/choreographer Jenny Barlow with strong theatricality, attractive stage pictures, and fluid transitions (also incorporating a unique live video element in the finale). Afton Wilson, who has directed the nationally acclaimed ballroom companies at Center Stage Performing Arts Studios, and flamenco expert Solange Gomes, joined forces with Barlow to create something truly extraordinary.
The incredible lighting design by Jaron Hermansen elevates the experience to an even higher level. The use of intensely saturated colors along with artistic timing, a strong sense of story, and pure entertainment value is Broadway caliber.
The set by Kacey Udy is absolutely perfect for the show. It is centered on a raised dance floor that somehow makes the massive stage feel more intimate to the audience while leaving plenty of room for creative surprises and impressive new images all along the way.
Costume designer MaryAnn Hill and hair/makeup designer Trisha Ison have had great fun with the 1980s setting and excess of ballroom competitions, coming up with costumes that have to be seen to be believed but still feel absolutely rooted in this wonderful world.
It's tough to imagine a better U.S. premiere for STRICTLY BALLROOM than this one. It's not be missed!
STRICTLY BALLROOM THE MUSICAL plays through April 11, 2020. For tickets, call the box office at 801-984-9000 or visit www.hct.org.
Photo Credit: L-R Payton Prince (Fran) and Eric Ascione (Scott)