Strictly Ballroom


Strictly Ballroom

Global Creatures

QPAC Lyric Theatre

September 9 – October 17 2015


 Reviewed by Xanthe Coward




A life lived in fear…


Strictly Ballroom should have been an easy transition from screen to stage. But there’s something amiss, and it’s not the gorgeous costumes or clever (though slightly lacklustre) sets by Catherine Martin. This show is like the last minute cramming you do the night before the final exam. There is so much in it and not all of it serves the storytelling. And a lot of it is forgettable. It’s such a shame because it’s such a great story, overflowing with fantastic, comically cringeworthy characters, whom we know so well from Baz Luhrman’s iconic film (1992).


It was a play that had a theatrical language that became a film

– Baz Luhrman


Scott Hastings is set to take out top honours in the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix, but he’s determined to dance his own steps, rather than those imposed by the Australian Dance Federation and its President, Barry Fife. Beginner dancer Fran, backed by her feisty Spanish family, help Scott to show the naysayers that “a life lived in fear is a life half lived”.


Thirty years ago, while studying at Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art, Luhrmann directed and acted in a student play set inside ballroom dancing. It was partly inspired by Keith Bain, an Australian choreographer and teacher whose students included a young Mel Gibson and Judy Davis. “He started creating his own steps,” Luhrmann said. “And he was carved up, never working, told to cut it out and stick with the rules.”


The 20-minute “Strictly Ballroom” show ostensibly was about a competitive dancer who felt compelled to break from tradition and move as he saw fit, not as the overzealous rules committee prescribed. Even with so many dance steps in the play, Luhrmann, whose mother taught dancing and who was a childhood dancer himself, believed his play carried a political message: Rise up against authoritarian decree and liberate yourself.


A longer version of Luhrmann’s play, running just an hour, was greeted warmly at the Czechoslovakian World Youth Drama Festival (the country’s Velvet Revolution was several years in the future), and its director promptly started trying to make a “Strictly Ballroom” movie, which would be filled with dancing and music but wouldn’t technically be a musical.


On opening night in Brisbane we’re lucky to enjoy the understudy in the lead role. Without Thomas Lacey we’re treated to a superb performance by one of our true triple threats, Rohan Brown. Perfectly paired with Phoebe Panaretos, you would never have known Brown was not the original choice for the role of Scott Hastings, although I’m sure his performance as the staggeringly drunk Ken Railings is just as convincing. As Fran, Panaretos is the ideal ugly duckling turned passionate, sassy swan, despite moments of pop quality vocals mismatching her look. The opportunities for these two to connect are few and far between but with what I can only imagine must have been limited rehearsal time together, they establish a delightful relationship and find a real connection by the time we need to see it, during the famous rooftop rehearsal and then during their duet, which is a new addition to the show. Beautiful Surprise  by David Foster & co is indeed a beautiful surprise, a highlight of the show, poignant and memorable, unlike other new pieces such as Tina Sparkles’ unfortunate Heavenly Pineapples song, penned by Sia, a dreadfully disappointing surprise, almost-but-not-quite saved by Nadia Coote’s cheeky confidence.


In amongst the sequins and spectacle created by the swirling, colourful ensemble – strangely, dancers appear at every opportunity, mostly detracting from rather than contributing to the main action – and we’re left with just a couple of lovely intimate moments. Beautiful Surprise is the only new tune to stick with me after I exorcise from my being, that other, grander ditty, “When you’re strictly ballroom…” Sadly, the classics – Time After Time and Love Is In the Air – don’t have the impact they make in the film.


Natalie Gamsu (Abuela) and Fernando Mira (Rico) have opportunity to shine before interval, and shine they do, with strong characters, vocals (Gamsu) and precision pasodoble moves (Mira), despite the backyard scene becoming increasingly untidy as more and more layers are unnecessarily added. The overall effect is not unlike the final strains of Roxanne in Moulin Rouge, but in which the musical and visual descent into chaos and madness works sensationally well.


We enjoy perfect casting in adept performances from Heather Mitchell (hilariously OTT as Shirley), Darren Gilshenan (Doug) and Robert Grubb (Barry Fife). Without there being too much substance to any of these comedic characters, these performers work beautifully to stereotype.


A standing ovation feels a little forced due to a final attempt to involve the audience, a select few welcome to join the company onstage. It’s actually the most unlikely curtain call ever, utilising ensemble members front and centre to sing John Paul Young’s Love Is In the Air. I’m mostly bemused. (So I won’t even mention the nod to A Chorus Line ….don’t tell me you didn’t think of Donna McKechnie too!). But look, for those who haven’t seen the movie, or haven’t ever seen a better book musical, you’ll love it! You’ll come away dancing and smiling, just like Poppy and so many others did! The abundance of brightly coloured and feathered dance couples, and devilish comedy within the classic story about the competitiveness of the amateur dance circuit (+ a timeless love story, of course) gives you a great excuse to dress up and enjoy a fun night out at QPAC. And if you loved Dirty Dancing on stage I suspect you’re much nearer the target market than I! See Strictly Ballroom for yourself before October 17.






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