• Scott and Fran at the Pan Pacifics.  Photo: Jeff Busby.
    Scott and Fran at the Pan Pacifics. Photo: Jeff Busby.
  • Scott and Fran. Photo: James Morgan.
    Scott and Fran. Photo: James Morgan.
  • Photo: Douglas Kirkland.
    Photo: Douglas Kirkland.

Strictly Ballroom, the Musical -
The Lyric Theatre, 10 April -

“Life doesn’t have to be Strictly Ballroom,” is Luhrmann’s message. A good and true message. But unlike the movie, which strikes all the right chords, Strictly Ballroom the Musical comes across more like a Mardi Gras romp – too much movement, too much set changing, too much noise.

Production company Global Creatures boasts of bringing together the original creative team: director and co-writer Baz Luhrmann, set and costume designer Catherine Martin, choreographer John “Cha Cha” O’Connell, and co-writer Craig Pearce. This is a reminder that sometimes a work is best served by being re-imagined by a new team who can honour the original while bringing it to life in a new way.

Where the original movie was tight and concise with superlative casting, timing and visuals, the musical is random. Luhrmann makes the mistake of thinking that to keep our interest, he must splice up the action, as one might a film. This ruptures emotional tension and breaks potentially beautiful moments, as with the anticipated “Time after Time” duo when Scott and Fran discover their happiness together on a suburban rooftop.

The story hangs around Scott Hastings played by Thomas Lacey, who wants to dance his way – adding his own steps to the ballroom dancing vernacular. All very well if “his way” means something more novel than countless barrel turns and double tours. He is an attractive young performer, but last night I was not won over by his stiff, often awkward upper body, while the vacuity of the choreography didn’t help.  

Phoebe Panaetos, who plays Fran, is an extremely strong presence. She has a superb voice and delivers a believable performance, transitioning from awkward ballroom beginner to glowing dancer, confident in who she is. This shows in how she moves – a class above the rest.

Casting is always going to be a compromise in productions which demand so much from performers. Here they are expected to dance a variety of genres, sing, act and live up to our expectations. The chorus work hard, but is woefully shown up by the exquisite performance of flamenco artist Fernando Mira, who plays Fran’s father. His integrity makes the rest of the show pale in comparison. Of course that is partly the point – he shows that dancing must come from heart. But that is not to say the rest of the dancing should be of lesser quality – only questionable integrity.

Having previously watched a couple of scenes in the rehearsal studio at Carriageworks, undecorated, raw, full of ambition and experimentation, I was truly disappointed with the show I saw on stage.  Through excess in almost all areas, the essence of the film and story is lost. Though we get some laughs and moments of pathos, these are more fond souvenirs of scenes and songs from the 1992 box office hit. Compared with the movie soundtrack, the score is spartan and the lyrics almost insulting to one’s intelligence.

With two more previews before its official opening (12 April), there is little time to turn this long loose production into an enjoyably watchable show.  Let alone a hit. Sadly, this production has little to recommend itself except for reminiscence.

 - Emma Sandall

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