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SYDNEY — The mirror ball’s a colossus, the curtains sparkle like they mean it and the preening, twinkle-toed dancers are costumed as if a bedazzler went berserk in a peacock pen. But the bubbly musical theater version of Baz Luhrmann‘s charming debut film Strictly Ballroom, about a rogue ballroom dancer who outrages the old guard by creating his own flashy steps, paradoxically works best when it is quietest.
The divisive Australian filmmaker’s breakout 1992 film, much-loved domestically and a cult hit in America, was a tender-hearted rom-com wrapped in a gently satirical suburban grotesque. In turning the tale into a full-blown stage musical, Luhrmann, being Luhrmann, has ramped up the super-vivid kitsch of its veneer — the neurotic ecosystem of competitive amateur ballroom dancing — into a busy whirl of flamboyant spectacle.
All that eager-to-please busyness leads to an unruly opening act in which an excess of dancers and their attendant backstories clog the plot. Much of the sly humor found in the film’s send-up of its self-serious milieu is swamped by screechy theatrics.
Thankfully, Luhrmann, who directs and co-wrote the book with Craig Pearce, is smart enough to realize the simplicity at the story’s heart: It’s about love and dancing. When these themes come together in the form of the talented but restless dancer Scott and ugly-duckling beginner Fran (relative newcomers Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos), a little bit of magic happens. A beautifully realized scene in which the couple twirl beneath a clothesline on a dance studio rooftop against the blaze of a setting sun will linger with audiences long after the frenetic whirl of sets, sequins and strobe-lights fades.
Co-produced by Luhrmann’s company Bazmark with Global Creatures, the company behind the musical King Kong and Walking with Dinosaurs, the production reunites the film’s core creative team: Luhrmann and Pearce are joined by designer Catherine Martin (whose two recent Oscars for The Great Gatsby make her Australia’s most prolific Academy Award winner) and choreographer John “Cha Cha” O’Connell (The Great Gatsby, Moulin Rouge!).
The feel-good film, which actually began life as a short student play Luhrmann mounted in 1984, was not strictly a musical, although it followed a classic Hollywood musical plot and featured stand-out musical moments such as the sugary-but-stirring “Time After Time,” “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” and the uplifting disco finale “Love Is in the Air.” Those songs from the original soundtrack are included — an incomplete wisp of the latter strikes a lovely, wistful note early on in Scott and Fran’s courtship — and Luhrmann has enlisted Sydney-based Elliott Wheeler (The Great Gatsby) as composer, arranger and orchestrator, as well as Australian singer-songwriters Sia Furler and Eddie Perfect and Grammy-winning pop-industry heavyweights Diane Warren and David Foster to pen tunes for the show.
The result is an eclectic mix of heartfelt love ballads, all-in, high-kicking showtunes and comedic riffs, the best of which is “Dance to Win,” sung by an excellent Robert Grubb as Ballroom Federation president Barry Fife. The weirdest is a suggestive fruity concoction which Nadia Coote, as uber-dancer Tina Sparkle, trills while wearing a glittering pineapple on her head.
The medley-like score works surprisingly well as the ballroom dancing styles veer from a Viennese waltz to the Spanish bullfighter dance, the paso doble, but it’s only in the second half that the songs start to jibe with the narrative and it begins to feel like we have a musical before us.
A relatively straight-forward boy-meets-girl plot is juiced with some rising-up-against-the-odds fervor. Scott Hastings has been training since he was a child to do his parents proud and win the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix. But, bored with the strictures laid down by the fossils at the Australian Dance Federation, Scott is determined to dance his own flamboyant routine. He finds a partner willing to go off-script in the demure wallflower Fran, whose Spanish father (flamenco great Fernando Mira) and grandmother (a wonderfully earthy Natalie Gamsu) school them in the art of dancing from the heart.
Lacey is a good dancer and a tidy singer, and is given most of the stage time, but he lacks the fire in the belly his rebel demands. Panaretos is the better actor; her comic timing is spot-on and her character is allowed a more engaging arc over the course of the show. Seasoned veterans Heather Mitchell and Drew Forsythe as Scott’s former dance-champion parents are standouts.
Much of the humor comes in the form of Martin’s outrageously spangly, feathery costumes and Wendy de Waal‘s high-rise hair; the men’s low-cut, glitter-bombed catsuits are a hoot. Martin’s sets, which are unexpectedly muted in palette, dance along with the cast, often distractingly. Structures break apart and whirl about the stage before reuniting or spinning off to house parenthetical scenes. Lighting, by Hugh Vanstone, who won a Tony Award last year for Matilda on Broadway, is sprightly and colorful, and O’Connell’s cheeky choreography is performed with plenty of verve.
Venue: The Sydney Lyric Theatre (runs through July 6)
Cast: Thomas Lacey, Phoebe Panaretos, Robert Grubb, Heather Mitchell, Drew Forsythe, Bob Baines, Natalie Gamsu, Fernando Mira, Mark Owen-Taylor, Nadia Coote
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Book: Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce
Music: Elliot Wheeler
Lyrics: Diane Warren, David Foster, Eddie Perfect and Sia Furler
Set and costume designer: Catherine Martin
Lighting designer: Hugh Vanstone
Sound designer: Peter Grubb
Musical supervisor: Max Lambert
Orchestrations: Elliott Wheeler
Choreographer: John O’Connell
Presented by Global Creatures and Bazmark
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