Strictly Ballroom (Baz Luhrmann, 2014)
I really wanted to like this. Baz Luhrmann is one of my favourite film directors, with Moulin Rouge my absolute favourite movie of all time. Baz usually has such extraordinary vision and from memory (it’s been a while since I watched it) the film version of Strictly Ballroom was pretty delightful. It seemed likely that the stage musical would rival the brilliantly showy and hilarious Priscilla Queen of the Desert, but alas, it just lacked that WOW factor.
Based loosely on Baz Luhrmann’s own experiences as a competitive ballroom dancer, Strictly Ballroom follows young dancer Scott Hastings (Thomas Lacey) who just wants the freedom to dance his own steps. Once his bratty partner Liz Holt (Sophia Katos) tires of his non-adherence to the rules and partners the drunk and wanky Ken Railings (Rohan Browne), Scott is left looking for a new partner. Shy and inexperienced dancer Fran (Phoebe Panaretos) puts herself forward, but Scott’s mum Shirley (Heather Mitchell) and her dance partner Les (Bob Baines) have other ideas, being under the thumb of Australian Dance Federation President Barry Fife (Robert Grubb). Meanwhile, Scott’s father Doug (Drew Forsythe) has some personal regrets, but tends to fade into the background, escaping everyone’s notice.
Strictly Ballroom bears some heartfelt messages, namely that “a life lived in fear is a life half lived” and that we shouldn’t always follow the steps set out for us. This is a personal work for Baz Luhrmann, and the material seems perfectly suited to a stage adaptation. Unfortunately, the end product falls short. Whereas The Great Gatsby didn’t quite meet my expectations because although it had a certain pizzazz, it lacked substance, the stage production of Strictly Ballroom has the opposite problem. A sweet story is there, but it just doesn’t pop the way it should.
Catherine Martin’s set designs are probably some of the better ones seen on Australian stages in the past few years, and yet they still seemed weak considering the standards she has met in the past (in Luhrmann’s films). Even the iconic Coca-Cola sign from the movie has lost its beauty, instead just looking like a massive product placement. Her costumes are pretty impressive I suppose, in the sense that they’re mostly meant to look tacky. They’ve got nothing on Priscilla but maybe that’s an unfair comparison.
I didn’t have high hopes for the music which involves songs from the film with added original music, but I assumed that ‘Love is in the Air’ wouldn’t be the best song of the night. It was. The only original song that impressed me was ‘Beautiful Surprise’ written by David Foster. After the brilliance of Shane Warne the Musical I had been excited for Eddie Perfect’s contribution of a couple of songs but I hardly even spotted his usual style in there. Sia also contributed a few songs – none that were memorable – is it just me or is she massively overrated?
When I spotted a few of my favourite dancers in the program I got excited in anticipation of some fabulous dancing. After all, that’s what the whole show is about. But there were really only two good dance numbers. The first was at the end of Act 1 (the PASODOBLE!) which brought about some optimism going into Act 2 that things were on the up. Unfortunately it fizzled out again until the penultimate number (another pasodoble). Scott’s solo early in the show had some clever staging, but the actual choreography by John O’Connell wasn’t exciting enough. Rohan Browne, Mike Snell and Nathan Pinnell were amazeballs in the Act 1 finale of ‘A Life Lived in Fear’ and I wanted more! It’s possible there was some great dancing to be seen in some of the big competition scenes, but there were too many dancers to look at that I felt like I missed out on a lot. It often felt that it was simply too busy up on that stage.
Probably the biggest strength of Strictly Ballroom is its cast, led by relative unknowns Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Though Lacey got off to a somewhat shaky start with some pitchy vocals, he came into his own as the performance progressed and demonstrated he has the voice to match those moves. He looked very young and this made Scott all the more adorable, though maybe not quite as strong. Phoebe Panaretos was the real revelation – she was absurdly likeable, not like Tara Morice who I found borderline unbearable in the film. She could dance and sing well, but above all she was just so damn lovely. Rohan Browne: be still my beating heart. I would actually kill to see him understudy Scott Hastings. His role of Ken Railings is more comedic – he staggers around drunk with a ridiculous expression on his face (and he does it well) but he re-joins the dance ensemble for the Act 1 finale and is the stand-out. Sorry Thomas, but I could not take my eyes off him. He’s got the sharpest moves in Oz. Plus he’s HOT! I also enjoyed seeing Mike Snell and Nathan Pinnell in the ensemble as they are both stunning dancers. Sophia Katos and Nadia Coote were fun to watch as Liz Holt and Tina Sparkles, and Andrew Cook was wonderful as Wayne Burns (gotta love all these bogan character names too). The oldies were good value, with Heather Mitchell a real hoot as the bogan dance mum Shirley Hastings. Robert Grubb is solid as the dodgy old dance president, and he can actually sing! SEE John Frost! You can actually cast old people who have TALENT! Keep that in mind before you cast Bert Newton or Alan Jones for the umpteenth time. On the other end of the age spectrum, Tiana Mirra and Tim Haskayne were cutie patooties as young’uns Kylie and Luke.
Despite the strong cast, the production is not quite there. The direction is odd in parts (Scott speaks awkwardly to Fran with his back to her, for the sake of facing the audience) and it’s not anywhere near as funny as you’d expect. The ‘audience participation’ that we were promised consists of one couple getting pulled up on stage for a silly (but entertaining) number and about forty people getting pulled up for the finale (myself included – très embarrassing). The seats in Her Majesty’s Theatre were colour coded so we knew which dancer we were supposed to cheer for when the time came (I got Mike Snell – WOO!), but after initial instructions there didn’t seem to be any opportunities to actually do so. On the plus side, I awkwardly got to tell both Mike Snell and Nathan Pinnell that I loved them on my way up to the stage and they both seemed touched/borderline frightened.
I wish I could say that we have another terrific Aussie musical on our hands, but it wouldn’t be true. Maybe my expectations of Baz were too high, but I know he has the capacity to do better. If you don’t get out to the theatre much you may be quite impressed with his efforts here, but for those familiar with the standard, it’s not quite up there. Love may be in the air, but not for this production.
Strictly Ballroom is currently playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre