Strictly Ballroom The Musical – a review by Deb Meyer

May 7, 2014 by Deb Meyer
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You know as soon as you walk into the Lyric theatre and the doorman personally greets you in full, bright red costume, with a broad grinned ‘Welcome to Strictly Ballroom’, you’re in for a night of razzle dazzle. Leave reality at the door and enter the surreal, glittering world of Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin.

 

Strictlt400

Stricly Ballroom The Musical has all the elements we expect from a Bazmark production – big dance numbers, flamboyant, colourful costumes and stunning, sparkling sets, with the stage resembling a sensory feast replete with outrageous wigs and make-up that’s sure to be seen up in the nose bleed seats. In fact, Luhrmann has made sure audience members in the cheap seats get just as much out of the show as those in the stalls, with dancers stationed on each of the two upper levels and colour coded seats throughout the theatre for audience members to cheer on their matching coloured dancer. Australian larrikin humour is dished out by the bucket full and visual storytelling reigns high with exuberant characters in full swing.

Strictly Ballroom The Musical, has come a long way since it’s first inception by Luhrmann as a stage play at NIDA almost thirty years ago. The film version in 1992 became one of the most successful Australian films of all time and now the musical, with its premier in the city where it all began, keeps true to the film’s storyline, characters and script. The musical has the same creative team as the film, including choreographer John O’Connell and co-writer Craig Pearse. The music also retains its well-known reprieved songs Time After Time, Love is in the Air and Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps, with the addition of new compositions by songwriters including Sia, Eddie Perfect, Dianne Warren and David Foster.

The cast is a collective of highly skilled, energetic and accomplished performers. Thomas Lacey, an outstanding and versatile dancer, plays Scott with a fresh and youthful charm in beautiful voice and Phoebe Panaretos provides an outstanding performance in the role of Fran – who transforms from the plain looking and clumsy beginner dancer into a beautiful and confidant young woman.  As a fine actress with a rich voice, we’ll no doubt be seeing a lot more of her.

The young cast of outstanding dancers are numerous, including Nadia Coote (the aptly named Tina Sparkle) and Rohan Browne (Ken Railings – a Bob Down look alike) who shine in the playful Pineapple dance sequence.

Seasoned stage actors and performers provide much of the humour and bring glimpses of gravitas to the show. Mark Owen Taylor, who plays the engaging JJ Silvers, and Robert Grubb, who plays Barry Fife (Ballroom Dancing’s stickler of rules) both have fun with their comedic, pantomime style roles. Bob Baines brings his vast stage experience to the role of Les (Scott’s dance teacher uncle) and Drew Forsythe, as always, is wonderful to watch, providing a passive counterbalance to his effervescent and emotionally charged wife, Shirley – Scott’s mother, played expertly by Heather Mitchell. Mitchell’s performance is skillfully layered – concealing a mother’s pain with a ubiquitous smile.

Heather Mitchell

Heather Mitchell

In discussing the role of Shirley, Mitchell, whose late mother was of Jewish Polish background, was influenced by her aunt, along with other women she’s met, who hide their pain under a smiling facade and those who “stop at nothing to get what they want for their child, whether the child wants it or not”.

In discussing Mitchell’s Jewish background, she concedes she wasn’t brought up Jewish but her mother instilled in her a great respect and love for Judaism. Mitchell fondly acknowledges that her mother, who passed away when Mitchell was only 16, as well as her maternal grandparents, instilled in her what she sees as very Jewish traits – a strong appreciation for family,  a desire to bring people together and celebrate life, a fearlessness and, not least of all, a sense of humour.

Despite not growing up Jewish (her father was an American Quaker), Mitchell acknowledges the strong connection she feels with many Jewish women, including her fellow cast member in Strictly Ballroom The Musical, Natalie Gamsu, who plays Abuela, Fran’s Spanish Grandmother. (an aside – It’s interesting to note that Luhrmann cast the two maternal roles in the show with Jewish actresses).

Gamsu shines in the Paso Doble scene, a highlight of the show, with a layered performance and voice of great depth. The raw and gutsy flamenco dancing of Fernando Mirs, who plays Rico, is passionate and soulful. The scene is filled with tension and beauty with a raw simplicity and emotional resonance that Luhrmann would have done well to inject more of in the production.

Depth of character, however, is not Lurhmann’s focus. Strictly Ballroom The Musical is all about visual storytelling. From the posters plastered around the theatre, effective sound and lighting design, to the extraordinary sets and costumes of Catherine Martin. This is indeed an original production. It’s schmaltzy and spectacular, telling an Australian story with a uniquely larrikin sense of humour.

Despite its shortcomings, at its heart it’s about a boy with a desire to dance to the beat of his own drum and be bold enough to go after the woman he wants and become his own person. A universal message, not at all strictly about ballroom.

 

 

Strictly Ballroom The Musical

Presented by Global Creatures & Bazmark

Book by Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce

Original Score & Arrangements by Elliott Wheeler

Set & Costume Design by Catherine Martin

Choreography by John O’Connell

 

Bookings – ticketmaster.com.au or 1300 795 267 or showbiz.com.au/strictlyballroom

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