Lyric Theatre, QPAC
A return season by Queensland Ballet of the smash-hit Strictly Gershwin has been on the wish list for many, ever since its sell-out season in 2016. Seven years on, this glorious celebration of the music of George and Ira Gershwin, again set the toes a-tapping of a packed opening night audience.
Originally conceived and choreographed in 2008 by Derek Deane for the English National Ballet, this is a big production, with over 60 dancers, 45 musicians (from the Queensland Symphony Orchestra), four guest vocalists, and a concert pianist on stage, often together, delivering all the razzle-dazzle of early 20th century Broadway and Hollywood.
A scintillating, up-beat and crisply delivered overture of Gershwin classics sets the bar high, in an evening where the music rules – vibrant orchestrations bringing a fresh zing to the old classics under the skilful baton of Guest Conductor Michael England.
Strictly Gershwin is fundamentally a series of ‘numbers’ grouped thematically in two halves according to the music’s association with either Broadway or Hollywood. It’s a well-balanced program that segues across the dance styles of ballroom, tap, ballet and jazz, building to a show-stopping “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” finale.
Although casting saw new faces in many of the featured roles, there were welcome reprisals, especially of Lina Kim and Rian Thompson who again brought spontaneous joy to a haunting rendition by soprano Nina Korbe of “Someone to Watch Over Me”, embracing the syncopated rhythms, while catching the breath in the music with light as a feather lifts.
Tap choreographer Bill Simpson again paired with Kris Kerr (both Guest Artists) to deliver some slick tapping in “Fascinatin’ Rhythm”, although as in 2016 the amplification levels of the tapping took time to settle. Simpson and Kerr were later joined by Rachael Walsh (also a guest) and a chorus of 10 tappers in “Oh Lady be Good”, bringing the house down. Nothing beats the excitement of dancers tapping in unison, and Walsh’s charismatic delivery was once more a highlight.
Georgia Swan and Vito Bernasconi epitomised 1930s glamour and elegance in “Shall We Dance”, a big ballroom number of black and silver lusciousness. Over the top epaulement, bent-elbowed arm movements, and arched lunges, while giving a nod to Fred and Ginger, also helped bring the era to life.
Chiara Gonzalez and Alexander Idaszak gave a glorious interpretation of “The Man I Love”, sung by mezzo-soprano Naomi Price. Both dancers have since been promoted to Senior Artist and Principal Artist respectively.
The first half of the program closes with a nod to the modernist ballet of the film, “An American in Paris”, encapsulating its busy opening moments and myriad characters. Joel Woellner appealed as the charismatic Gene Kelly character in jeans and white tee, with Mia Heathcote deliciously sultry in the Leslie Caron role. Heathcote and Woellner later gave a hauntingly poetic interpretation of the Porgy and Bess classic “Summertime”.
Opening the second half of the program the dancers were thoroughly at home pairing the classical idiom of tutus and tights to the jazz rhythms of “Rhapsody in Blue”, brilliantly played by pianist Daniel Le. Led by a dazzling Neneka Yoshida and Patricio Revé, 10 couples, sparkling in deep blue, jewel encrusted velvet, performed the sparse movement construct including triple turns into arabesque, split jetés, and the final spectacular presage tableau, with aplomb.
The four guest vocalists helped emphasise the importance of Ira Gershwin’s lyrics with interspersed moments of pure song. “But Not for Me”, a duet of glorious harmonies by Ben Mingay and Luke Kennedy, was one such poignant interlude, in contrast to the chiselled, sizzling tango to “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, by Yanela Piñera and Guest Artist Camilo Ramos that immediately followed.
Strictly Gershwin is a classy show that delivers in spades musically, while relying heavily on the dancers’ embrace of the various nuances of the Broadway musical style, to also be visually effective. Apart from a few opening night wrinkles, which will no doubt iron out over the season, it’s a winning formula and well worth seeing.