You know the film, Strictly Ballroom. Scott, a young dancer, bored by the convention and rigourous boundaries of competitive dancing, longs to break free and dance his own steps at the championships. When he dances with beginner Fran, he finds a kindred spirit, and together (with the help of her Spanish family) they take on the dance federation and win their way into the hearts of everyone. You loved the film, you and countless millions the world over. You’re familiar, too, with Baz Luhrmann’s ‘red curtain’ aesthetic that pervades his first three films and which, for better or worse, continues to define his career. Now, thirty years after beginning life as a half-hour student production at NIDA, Strictly Ballroom the Musical explodes onto Sydney’s Lyric Theatre stage with as much colour, light, glitter and glamour as anything else Luhrmann has devised.
Produced here in partnership with Global Creatures – the Melbourne-based company responsible for the King Kong musical, the How To Train Your Dragon Arena Spectacular, and the Australian tour of War Horse – Baz Luhrmann and his usual collaborators have brought us a musical which wears its price-tag on its ruffled sleeve, figure-hugging sequined costumes and elaborate sets. Yet, while the film had heart by the bucketload, something is lost in translation here, as the story completes its circular journey from theatre to film and back again.
Part of the problem comes from how closely the musical sticks to and replicates the film’s plot, script, characterisation and spirit. Characters already overblown and melodramatic are pushed well past the reasonable boundaries of caricature into self-parody. Catherine Martin’s sets, while sumptuous, also replicate the look of the film so it doesn’t so much seem a new work as a recycling or transposing from one key to another, one medium to another. The other part of the problem comes from our own familiarity with the source, which is seen most clearly in the Finale when, after Fran and Scott have been disqualified, Doug leads the slow-clap rhythm which allows them to dance. Before Doug had even had a chance to clap, the audience was clapping for him, leading Barry Fife to exclaim “Now let’s not get ahead of ourselves.” When the slow-clap finally arrived, we were alongside him from the beginning and even though it was one of those beautiful moments of audience and cast joining in a celebration of everything that the show is about, the desired effect was diminished by our over-familiarity with the film.
Another problem are the songs. While the film used its few songs to tremendous and memorable effect, a musical, by necessity, needs musical numbers to further character development and push the story onwards, while the book (or script) ties everything together and makes it work. Theorist Jane Feuer states that “the musical [is defined] by its dual levels of narrative and [musical] number [and] everything is subordinated to the song, even the running time.” In Luhrmann’s stage musical however, the songs feel superfluous, as though they’ve been inserted into scenes to necessitate its being billed as a musical; most of the characters, save for Scott, Fran and Doug, do not seem to develop throughout the two-and-a-half hours running time. The musical numbers, written by acclaimed artists such as Eddie Perfect, Sia, Diane Warren, David Foster (among others), are too diverse stylistically to work cohesively together; while musicals generally allow for this – with their duets, slow songs, ensemble numbers, climaxes, and rousing foot-tappers – Strictly Ballroom The Musical is spoiled by having too many cooks working on the broth. Lyrically and musically, the new songs are forgettable. The memorable songs – such as those used in the film, like ‘Time After Time’, ‘Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps,’ ‘Love Is In The Air,’ and ‘Happy Feet’ – all feature, but feel as though they’ve been sidelined in favour of the newer commissioned songs. Use is made of ‘Time After Time’ and ‘Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps’ as leitmotifs, both musically and lyrically – their words becoming dialogue, albeit contrivedly – and they work, give the musical a bit of the saccharine charm and heart that the film had. Use is made of Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz and the ‘Habanera’ from Bizet’s Carmen, albeit with words added; while the tunes work, the lyrics do not, and are often drowned out by the live band and additional electronic accompaniment and amplification.
This said, the musical’s greatest strength is its visual design – Catherine Martin’s sumptuous costumes and moving fragmentable sets, the coloured seats in the auditorium and the mock-advertisements covering the walls. Framed by the (now trademark) red curtains – themselves framed within red curtains – Martin’s sets for the dance studio, Fran’s house and the dance stadium, glide back and forth, a theatrical nod to Luhrmann’s incessant camera and penchant for zooms and close-ups. The sets also fragment, waltz around on trucks propelled by ensemble members, or turning on the stage’s revolve. While their breakability is distracting, their effect is mesmerizing, and when seen in their most essential form – four mirrors for the Scott’s solo dance in the dance studio in Act One; an armchair and fridge for the
house in Act Two – there is a magic that is gained from their simplicity. Likewise
when the black curtains part, in turn, to reveal a fragment of the dance studio
and Fran’s house – their essence is hardwired into our heads and we don’t need
the rest of the set to know where we are. Hastings
The forty-odd ensemble are all strong, though the characterisation and performances barely differ from the characters’ cinematic incarnations. Pat, Doug, Les, Wayne, Liz, Vanessa, Barry Fife and all the rest of them seem to have stepped out of Luhrmann’s celluloid vision and onto the Lyric Theatre stage, looking and sounding the same as they did twenty-two years ago. It is the two young leads however, Scott (Thomas Lacey) and Fran (Phoebe Panaretos), who shine most. While it takes them both a while to warm into their characters (and I didn’t believe the ‘ugly-duckling’ Fran as much as I could or should have), by the time we arrive at interval, they are their characters and they begin to shine until the curtain call when it’s not hard to see and share the joy radiating off their faces, as they sing, dance; Be. Panaretos is a particularly fine singer, Lacey a tremendous dancer, and their performances distinguish themselves from the rest of the ensemble by not adhering too closely to Paul Mercurio and Tara Morice’s cinematic evocations; the is more of an rebellious earthiness to Panaretos’ Fran, more of a lithe athleticism and freedom to Lacey’s Scott and it is refreshing to watch them together, on top of the roof under the Coca-Cola sign, in Fran’s backyard, carving up the stage at the Pan Pacific Grand Prix at the finale.
Like all of Luhrmann’s work – both on stage and on screen – it is hard to fault his stagecraft and vision, hard to fault Catherine Martin’s pitch-perfect and rich evocations of theatrical splendour. There are moments of true theatrical magic here, when you stop watching the glitter and the glamour, and let your emotions take hold. Scott’s solo number in Act One (‘Shooting Star’) is the first glimpse we get into the show’s potential, as he dances surrounded by four mirrors and two manually operated lights pumping stage-smoke onto the floor. The rooftop dance (albeit hampered by a too-low obligatory Hills Hoist) is another all-too-brief glimpse into what could have been possible, as is their duet late in Act Two which mirrors it; Scott’s entrance at the finale and the show-stopping rendition of ‘Love Is In The Air’ are but two more, but perhaps the greatest moment of heart and stage magic is the Act One finale, at Fran’s house, as they dance the Paso Doble together for the first time; while the music perhaps overpowers the freedom, earthiness and honesty in the scene (and it loses momentum slightly for an ill-judged walk-past by Nathan Starkey), it’s not hard to share in the flamenco heart-beat rhythm, and be caught up in the abundance of heart which pumps from it, one two one-two-three.
While it is easy to be distracted by the razzle-dazzle of the musical, I couldn’t help but think all the musical embellishments were superfluous and unnecessary – it is, at heart, “a play with music”, just as it was twenty-five years ago. As a piece of theatre, it sticks a little too closely to – and works perhaps a little too hard to replicate the effect of – its filmic parent, and it seems that Luhrmann and
Co. have created a work which perhaps half-lives
up to its potential, although they have guaranteed that the Bogo-Pogo lives on
for another generation.
Theatre playlist: 21. Love Is In The Air (Fran Mix), John Paul Young