STRICTLY BALLROOM the Musical

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 BallroomDance 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.

*Postscript:

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
Role                        Actor
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)
                               Matthew Jenson
                               Holly Sheils
                               Brenton Wilson

Children
Kylie Hastings     LaineHastie, Tiana Mirra,
                               Lisa Rassias, Karina Thompson
Luke                      Tim Haskayne,
                              Campbell MacCorquodale,
                              Michael Scott-Kahans, Luke Tieri

© Henry Sachwald 2015

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