Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin are a unique couple. He dreams and she makes it happen. The story is Luhrmann’s; CM as he fondly calls her creates the visual experience of set and costume design. With a list of awards longer than your arm she has taken Strictly Ballroom from the two dimension cinema screen and transposed it into a three dimensional experience that only live musical theatre can give.
I have not watched the movie version of Strictly Ballroom since its premier in 1992 and made a point of not watching it before experiencing this new incarnation of the work. My one recollection of the film was that it used pre-existing musical material (popular, traditional and classical). Recent musicals that have originated in Australia including Priscilla-Queen of the Desert, The Boy From Oz, Dusty, Dirty Dancing, have been musicals of the jukebox variety. Girding my loins for another such experience, I was pleasantly surprised to hear a mostly original score for this production by Elliot Wheeler and additional material written by Eddie Perfect and Sia Furler.
For someone as a performer and writer who was as anti-Broadway musicals as you could get ten years ago, Perfect has created three wonderful pastiche “Broadway” pieces for Strictly Ballroom including the lavish opening/Strictly Ballroom, Dance to Win, and the Act two opening number Beautiful When You Dance.
Sia’s contributions include an hilarious dance number in Act One called Heavenly Pineapple and an Act Two stand out Love Is a Leap of Faith.
The fairy tale story for the show sticks to the plot summary for the movie. Scott Hastings is his mother’s (Shirley Hastings) great hope as a championship level ballroom dancer of finally winning the cherished ballroom competition prize that eluded her, the Australian Pan Pacific Championships run by the Ballroom Confederation. The only problem is that Scott doesn’t like to dance by the rules. There is a back-story to this scenario that reveals a similar situation in the Hastings family. While Shirley and family are on the hunt for a suitable championship level dance partner for Scott, Fran – a beginner dance student convinces Scott that she is the right dance partner for him if he wants to “break the rules” at the Australian Pan Pacific Championships. Calamity ensues, but as in all fairy tales, there is a happy ending.
While the romantic theme reprised throughout the show (and film) is the Harry Vanda & George Young song standard Love is in the Air the message the story is really making is the one stated by Fran and her Gypsy family, “A life lived in fear is a life half lived.”
I enjoyed Strictly Ballroom and I think you will as well. Strictly Ballroom is a home-grown dinky di Australian musical. It doesn’t take itself too seriously which is what makes it fun to watch and be part of. Yes, there is even some audience participation in the show. For the most part this does not break that third wall of the theatre between actor and audience. That is, until the curtain calls*. This is where I think this production forgets the rules of the “theatre”.
As I said at the start of this review, Baz Luhrmann is a dreamer. Visually, through the support of the major producers, Global Creatures (Walking With Dinosaurs, King Kong) he has been able to write and direct a show that uses his talents as both a cinematic and theatrical director.
The cast is terrific with stand out performances by all.
Unfortunately the curtain calls go from audience appreciation for actors to an all-in free-for-all with the audience urged (not just invited) to dance in the aisles and come on stage for what seem like an endless repeating of the signature tune “Love is in the Air”. Much of the audience loved this “running on to the football field after the game” sensation, while others made a quick exit. For this long time theatre-goer it completely broke the spell and the magic of the evening and cheapened the quality of the production. In fact the music that was playing as we left the theatre was another pop love song (the title escapes me as I write) that wasn’t even in the show. Huh?
STRICTLY BALLROOM THE MUSICAL – Now playing. Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, Australia
STRICTLY BALLROOM THE MUSICAL – CREATIVE TEAM
Baz Luhrmann Director & Co-Writer
Catherine Martin Set & Costume Designer
Craig Pearce Co-Writer
John O’Connell Choreographer
Elliott Wheeler Original Score and Arrangements
Hugh Vanstone Lighting Designer
Peter Grubb Sound Designer (System Sound)
Max Lambert Musical Supervisor
Anton Monsted Music Designer
Wendy de Waal Hair and Make-Up Designer
STRICTLY BALLROOM THE MUSICAL – CAST LIST
Scott Hastings Thomas Lacey
Fran Phoebe Panaretos
Les Kendall Bob Baines
Doug Hastings Drew Forsythe
Abuela Natalie Gamsu
Barry Fife Robert Grubb
Rico Fernando Mira
Shirley Hastings Heather Mitchell
JJ Silvers Mark Owen-Taylor
Vanessa Cronin Ash Bee
Merv Damien Bermingham
Ken Railings Rohan Browne
Nathan Starkey Jarryd Byrne
Wayne Burns Andrew Cook
Tina Sparkle Nadia Coote
Terry Best Tyler Coppin
Liz Holt Sophia Katos
Charm Leachman Angela Kennedy
Clarry Welch Lachlan Martin
Pam Short Angie Stapleton
Natalie Kate Wilson
Kayleen West Kaylah Attard
Rory West Keanu Gonzalez
Emily Waters Cristina D’Agostino
Jonathon Drench Ryan Gonzalez
Murial Shunt Melanie Hawkins
Tommy Arbunt Mike Snell
Stephanie Shanks Loren Hunter
Liam Lamb Nathan Pinnell
Swings Leigh Archer
Steven Grace (Dance Captain)
Jillian Green (Assistant Dance Captain)
Kylie Hastings LaineHastie, Tiana Mirra,
Lisa Rassias, Karina Thompson
Luke Tim Haskayne,
Michael Scott-Kahans, Luke Tieri
© Henry Sachwald 2015