Venue: Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), from Mar 25, 2014
Book: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce
Original Score: Elliot Wheeler
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Choreographer: John O’Connell
Performers: Thomas Lacey, Phoebe Panaretos, Bob Baines, Drew Forsythe, Natalie Gamsu, Robert Grubb, Fernando Mira, Heather Mitchell, Mark Owen-Taylor, Sophia Katos
Theatre review (originally published at auditoriummag.com)
The transformation of Strictly Ballroom into a work for the musical stage is a logical progression. The themes and structure of the film obviously lend themselves to a rendering that would fit readily into the popular genre, and Baz Luhrmann’s penchant for ostentation, flamboyance, and musical numbers in his films makes him a marketer’s dream in this lucrative market.
As an internationally lauded luminary of film imagery, our expectations of production and costume design in his show are understandably high. Fresh from receiving her third and fourth Academy Awards just a month prior to opening night, long-time collaborator Catherine Martin’s work as set and costume designer is irrefutably stunning. Working with already outlandish costumes from the world of ballroom dancing, Martin’s creations take a giant leap forward, into a realm of fairy tales and pure fantasy. There is no requirement for restraint on this stage, and we are treated to the most gloriously colourful and glitzy wigs and costumes that had previously existed only in our dreams.
Martin’s sets are effective and dynamic. The scenes are not located anywhere exotic, but the several suburban venues depicted are created with flair and great imagination. There is very efficient use of space with mobile pieces that work independently, but are also combined for different perspectives. It is not a story that features pyramids, castles or helicopters, but this is a visually arresting stage, which exploits every depth and height that the space can afford, and which sparkles at every corner. There are sequins, paillettes, beads and crystals shimmering at all times, helping to establish an aesthetic that fits in perfectly with this fantastical realm.
Strictly Ballroom embraces wholeheartedly the kitsch value of musicals, and its visual elements are only the beginning. Although it does carefully cater to middle class family audiences, every aspect is expressed through a rejection of banal refinement and conventional good taste. Its story is highly romanticised, the emotions it portrays are brash, the songs are oversweet and obvious, and all performers approach their roles with a sense of unbridled and confident exaggeration. If there is ever a moment for a concoction with this much cheese to work, this would be it, but very unfortunately, the show misses its mark on several levels.
Humour is appropriately peppered throughout the plot. There is much to make fun of, with ridiculous characters and contexts all clearly bearing the promise to deliver laughs, but many of the jokes fall flat. Luhrmann’s direction seems to lack an emphasis on the comedy. Punchlines often do not work, and the atmosphere struggles to keep buoyant. An exception is the role of Liz, played by Sophia Katos, who is memorable as the most consistently funny member of the cast. A number of roles have been created chiefly for comic relief, and Katos’ execution is clearly the strongest.
Leading the cast is Thomas Lacey, an attractive man and a strong dancer, both qualities shared by his character Scott Hastings. Lacey is also an adequate singer, but the scale of the production requires a much more experienced voice that will stand its own amongst all the frenetic activity on stage. Weaker still is Lacey’s acting, which fails to connect him with his love interest, and renders their relationship completely uninteresting and unconvincing. Equally responsible is Phoebe Panaretos, who is admittedly more evenly skilled in the various disciplines of musical theatre, but her lack of charisma in the very central role of Fran is a key disappointment. Panaretos is not a weak performer, but it is evident that she is simply too inexperienced for the challenge bestowed upon her.
Better performances come from the likes of Heather Mitchell, who is endearing as Shirley Hastings, the male protagonist’s mother. Mitchell’s characterisation is vibrant and believable, and although not the strongest of singers, she brings a warmth to the production despite playing someone fairly unpleasant. Also in parental roles are Natalie Gamsu and Fernando Mira, who both impress as characters of Spanish heritage. Gamsu’s distinctive voice is outstanding in a production that seems to have cast performers according to dance ability and appearance, and Mira is a charismatic actor, whose talents as a flamenco dancer are showcased brilliantly, but needs to find greater confidence in his singing.
One of the themes in Strictly Ballroom is the tension between ethnic groups in Australia. This is expressed in the romantic relationship between Fran and Scott, and also in their dance. Their families are depicted in wildly different lights, but both are spirited, joyful and moving. Regretfully, this meaningful and dramatic subject matter is not explored in sufficient depth. The young leads seem too easily accepted by each others’ families, and the penultimate obstacle to their love takes form instead, in the young man’s dilemma about competition dance partners. The opportunity for a more emotive conclusion is sacrificed for one that is more vivacious, but also needlessly frivolous. Ultimately it is the production’s marvelous visual beauty that triumphs, but a three hour show requires more than pleasure for the eyes. It needs to do something for the soul, which discerns the difference between style and substance, and recognises all that glitters is not gold.