After the success of last year’s trip to Melbourne to see three big musicals I decided to do it all again this year with Strictly Ballroom the first cab off the rank. This time I was in the front row at Her Majesty’s Theatre, just across the aisle from the centre block so I was in a prime position. The show exhibited all the strengths and eccentricities of its creative driving forces – sumptuous costumes and set design by multiple Oscar winner Catherine Martin and the joyous, over the top, at times tacky, but nothing less than entertaining flourishes of her husband, one Baz Luhrmann. It looked fantastic, sounded great with the orchestra (Musical Director Daniel Edmonds) playing the pastiche of styles and mix of original numbers and pop classics very well, and was superbly lit by Hugh Vanstone.
The show had quite a long first half with two expertly crafted sequences and another standout scene and was much stronger than the second half which lacked narrative propulsion. The finale ensured the audience went home happy though with the massed cast singing the by now iconic Love Is In The Air and inviting audience members on stage to dance/shuffle with them.
The story is a simple one – Scott Hastings longs to win a major dance competition but wants to do so using his own steps much to the horror of his dance partner who dumps him, his family and the establishment headed up by Barry Fife. In steps dorky beginner Fran who becomes Scott’s partner and with the assistance of her passionate family they become a force to be reckoned with.
Thomas Lacey was terrific as Scott, nowhere more so than in a tremendous early set piece, Shooting Star where he is on stage alone practising dance moves. No backdrops, no set, simply lit up in the darkness. In that moment he commanded the stage and I was unsure what he going to do which gave it a real edge. Then he bursts into song and frenetic dance as movable mirrors reflected his moves and alternatively become transparent to reveal other male dancers mimicking his steps. Beautifully lit, the sweat was flying off him in a short, sharp, stunning sequence.
Phoebe Panaretos was a likeable Fran and while her dancing wasn’t as strong she had a wonderful singing voice that was first revealed in the beautifully constructed Time After Time sequence. The well-known Cyndi Lauper song was used to great effect. Firstly, as Scott recites the lyrics to an awkward Fran while going through a set of dance moves and then comes to full life on the rooftop, hills hoist and all, as they burst into song with the cast down below giving added punch. It teased then built and built until it was classic Luhrmann as he combined song and dance to emphasis a major turning point in the story. Fran’s transformation from dorky beginner to potential serious dance partner was pure Baz with that unabashedly joyful and romantic style he also used on the rooftops of Paris in Moulin Rouge!
The second sequence that was even more impressive was the one that ended the first half – A Life Lived in Fear where Abuela (Natalie Gamsu) and Rico (Fernando Mira) show Scott the true meaning of how to dance with passion. Gamsu and Mira were outstanding; the former a commanding presence as Fran’s grandmother, the latter with crisp authority in the dance moves. Again, the sequence builds slowly beat by beat until the majority of the company join in to deliver a devastatingly good climax of movement, music and vocals.
Herein lies the problem with the show – nothing in the second half delivers anything even close to these highpoints in the first half. In fact, for the majority of its length, the second half spins its wheel with a complete lack of narrative propulsion. We know the trajectory of the story and the end of the first act has us primed for that climax. Yet it is delayed by the use of some fleetingly fun audience participation as two people are pulled up on stage at the restart; to a dream sequence as Barry Fife (a charming ‘villain’ as played by Robert Grubb) frets about ‘new steps’; to a long flashback sequence featuring Darren Gilshenan as Scott’s dad. Not that these aren’t funny and without charm but they are tangential to the main narrative and mean that the show’s greatest assets, Lacey and Panaretos are sidelined for large chunks.
The climax when it finally comes is also disappointing. Unlike those earlier sequences that were such beautifully constructed and executed examples of storytelling, this is full of colour and movement as the couples dance off but is unfocussed which diffuses the drama and the stakes. It kind of happens in a burst of energy and then it’s over. The finale rallies to deliver the crowd pleasing John Paul Young song with the audience invited on stage. Props also to the three cast members who belted out a reprise of Love Is A Leap Of Faith as the stage was cleared and the curtain closed.
It was an entertaining spectacle and I did laugh a lot but that second half is very problematic in its current configuration. Special mention to Heather Mitchell who gave a hilariously over-the-top performance as Scott’s mum Shirley and to the stunning Nadia Coote who exemplified the excellent dancing and gorgeous costuming as Tina Sparkle.
Directed by Baz Luhrmann, Book by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, Original Score and Arrangements by Elliott Wheeler, Set and Costume Designer Catherine Martin.