BWW Review: STRICTLY BALLROOM THE MUSICAL, Piccadilly Theatre
Love is in the air, and revolution too. Baz Luhrmann's beloved 1992 film (originally a student play, now back on stage as a musical) is even more adamantly anti-establishment in this latest incarnation, opening out a delicious satire of 1980s Australian competitive ballroom into a more universal story of the fight for fearless self-expression. In short: "Love, freedom and sequins".
Drew McOnie's production has been significantly revamped since its 2016 West Yorkshire Playhouse premiere. Will Young's MC now guides the story and performs the largely jukebox score. That leaves Scott Hastings, ballroom almost-champ, and ugly duckling Fran, who shares his desire to create original steps, communicating more organically through their burgeoning dance partnership.
Young is a charming and efficient companion, whisking us through set changes (short scenes and location jumps a hangover from the movie) and, crucially, maintaining the show's tone: a mix of droll parody, spiced with Aussie lingo, and kindly emotion. Plus he's game enough to sport an eye-wateringly tight sparkly catsuit, enormous frilled sleeves and roller skates.
His crooning is also pleasant, and film fans will be pleased to know their song faves are all present and correct (with lush arrangements by Marius de Vries). However, some additional music cues are too heavy-handed; a genuinely electric piece of audience participation is rather stomped upon. This busy show could do with placing more trust in its quieter moments.
That's perhaps tricky given the heightened, almost live-action cartoon playing style - surreal theatrical touches include a dancer crouched in the fridge and several more crawling out from under the bed - though Luhrmann and Craig Pearce's book also supplies rich themes, including the difficulty of honouring tradition while innovating, and pursuing your own path despite family expectations.
They're certainly not afraid to give Scott some unlikeable qualities, such as his blinkered arrogance and tendency to come to a realisation at the expense of a hard-working woman; he leaves quite the trail of feminine destruction. It's a cheer-worthy moment when Fran finally calls him on it, though unfettered self-expression and partner dancing are never entirely reconciled.
Jonny Labey wrings plenty of humour out of Scott's privileged pomposity, while also demonstrating his genuine artistic yearning. He's at his best opposite Zizi Strallen's awkward but warmly forthright Fran, whose chipper certainty in her own creative path offsets the (groan) romcom beauty hidden behind glasses. McOnie also parallels them via exploratory, contemporary-edged solos, adding depth to their endearing connection.
Beautifully effective, too, is the "Time After Time" practice montage, in which the tireless ensemble seem extensions of the pair and a set change grows out of their whirling grace. But the standout sequence is the first-act closer: the astonishing Fernando Mira, as Fran's father, demonstrating authentic paso doble, which then ripples out into a passionate, Carmen-scored group number.
On the more broadly comic side, Anna Francolini supplies memorable contortions as Scott's (stage) mum, straining to maintain her "happy face", and there's great support from Lauren Stroud as his fearsome partner Liz, Gary Watson's perma-tanned, perma-soused veteran, and Charlotte Gooch as Tina Sparkle, the twinkling ballroom Barbie.
Naturally, we must have a Trump avatar too, so step forward corrupt federation president Barry Fife: a blonde, lying, fascistic bully, using his position to flog his own products. Gerard Horan is a superb villain, while Michelle Bishop does impressive work in a series of roles, including Fife's self-possessed missus, an hysterical series of auditionees, and Fran's butch partner.
Despite the latter - plus Richard Grieve's elegantly camp Les finding a male partner at the climax, and Stephen Matthews's halting Doug reclaiming the girl - dance is presented in more traditional terms than the show preaches. Strallen's increasing slickness means that the final paso is more lithe demo than a radical moment of emotional sincerity amidst well-drilled artifice.
That climax also suffers from a confined playing space, hemmed in by the (excellent) onstage band. However, Soutra Gilmour's design strikes a shrewd balance of compact and evocative, and Howard Hudson's lighting helps differentiate between the real and ballroom worlds.
Best of all, Catherine Martin supplies an unforgettable parade of outlandish dancewear: luminous shades, era-perfect silhouettes, liberally festooned with sequins and feathers. That allows McOnie to illustrate the brilliant absurdities of competitive ballroom - elegance exaggerated into spectacle, and underscored by a ruthless desire to win.
But like that other hit Strictly franchise, we're more interested in the journey than the trophy, and here the show certainly delivers. Plus Craig Revel Horwood could only dream of a putdown like the one supplied by Eve Polycarpou's impudent grandmother: "Hot Stuff can shake his tail feather, but he knows chickenshit about rhythm." Watching these characters gradually find - and trust - their own rhythm is a fab-u-lous, feel-good pleasure.
Photo credit: Johan Persson