BWW Review: STRICTLY COME DANCING LIVE!, Wembley Arena
Changes from last year include new host Anita Rani - hair coiffed to within an inch of its life, but she keeps things moving along at a good pace and the audience rarely feels like they're being fed filler (even when Len's new DVD gets an extensive plug).
Karen Hardy joins Len Goodman and tour director Craig Revel-Horwood on the judging panel - a shameless audition for the head judge role soon to be vacated by Goodman, and this reviewer was more than won over. The potential for the judges' entrance dance would go through the roof for starters. Her comments throughout the evening were encouraging and genuine where they easily could be hammy and exaggerated at such a big arena. The way she broods before flicking up her score paddle, milking the anticipation, is very watchable.
In past years the group numbers seen on the main TV series have been reworked for the tour. This would usually be a criticism, however the opening Hairspray routine was pitched perfectly, setting the carefree, feel-good tone for the evening. The professionals partnered with celebrities are joined by additional dancers including Oksana Platero, Giovanni Pernice and Janette Manrara, Neil Jones, Chloe Hewitt and AJ Pritchard, allowing for them to take centre stage in these group numbers.
The West Side Story finale was captivating, taking the audience from the moody opening scenes of Jet vs. Sharks to the first meeting of Tony and Maria (played beautifully by Janette and real life partner Aljaz Skoranjec), and the climax of "America" - skirt flicks and an incomparable back bend from Karen Clifton made for a true showstopper. The house orchestra remains much the same from the main series and delivered Leonard Bernstein's score flawlessly.
The celebrity performances feel like an incidental extra in the midst of the professional masterclass, but all the crowd-pleasers are there, from Ed Balls's "Gangnam Style" to Ore Oduba's jive. The latter was danced with the absence of original partner Joanne Clifton (currently in Thoroughly Modern Millie), but proceedings are kept in the family as he partners Joanne's sister-in-law Karen. I couldn't help but feel its original impact was a little lost on this impossibly large stage.
Daisy Lowe displayed much improvement since the main series in a confident, sexy salsa and enchanting waltz to Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable". Her grace and style prompted Karen Hardy to astutely observe that it's just as hard to captivate an audience of this size in silence than to get them screaming and whooping in appreciation.
Lesley Joseph is ever the trooper, performing her theatrical quickstep to Easter Parade's "A Couple of Swells" with Gorka Marquez. (Gorka seems to have truly lucked out in his Strictly debut this year, not only partnering Tameka Empson and then stepping in for an injured Brendan Cole with Anastasia, but landing a celebrity on tour too. Methinks he may be here to stay.) Lesley is professionalism personified - she knows she won't win any of these touring shows, but still has a ball, and her enthusiasm to keep pushing herself to try new things at the age of 71 is inspiring. We were also treated to her inspiring Charleston.
The two runners-up in the main series were firm favourites with the Wembley crowd, voted the two most popular at this particular showing. Louise Redknapp's paso doble came across far better live than through a television screen. It was a dramatic tour de force, enhanced by a great musical choice in "Explosive" by Bond. I certainly appreciated this more than her yeehaw-ing, thigh-slapping quickstep that followed later.
That left just Danny Mac and goddess Oti Mabuse, declared winners of the first Wembley show. Able to hone his skills on the tour, Mac is now undeniably professional standard - both his routines West End ready. His flashy Charleston opening the night and his samba getting the loudest reception of all meant it was no surprise when he lifted the glitterball on this occasion.
Although there's a winner, it's irrelevant to the enjoyment of a fabulous evening's entertainment. Yes, there are some scripted gags you'll need to ignore, and you could maybe live without Craig's attempt to recreate "Gangnam Style" with Katya, but it's a wonderful dance showcase and you'd be hard pressed not to leave feeling entirely uplifted.
Photo credit: Dave J Hogan