Following an unprecedented publicity blitz, the first night audience was expecting Strictly Ballroom to be spectacular. They were not disappointed. From the moment you entered the theatre you knew you were in for a memorable theatrical experience.
The auditorium of the Lyric Theatre has been transformed into a huge dance-hall with multi-colour lame seats and huge posters decorating the walls. It looks terrific. Smarmy JJ Silvers, (Mark Owen-Taylor) warms up the audience for the forthcoming dance competition, dividing them into sections which are given contestants to barrack for. Then the glittering curtains part to reveal a stunning riot of spangles, sequins, feathers and swirling ball-gowns.
Catherine Martin’s costumes, topped with sky-high hairdos, are gorgeous and gaudy. So are her wonderfully detailed settings which magically break apart, dance with the action, and regroup in endless combinations.
Song follows song as we meet the various players and begin the familiar story of ballroom dance champion Scott Hastings (Thomas Lacey), who wants to change the dance rules, and ugly-duckling, Fran (Phoebe Panaretos) who’s just the girl to help him do it. Most of the audience seemed to be familiar with the movie, and as the musical follows the movie fairly closely, there were times where the audience were ahead of the plot, particularly when the plot was interrupted by an unfamiliar song.
Love is in the Air, Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps, Time after Time and Happy Feet are all there, so is the Blue Danube Waltz and Bizet’s familiar Habanera (now with new lyrics about A Life Lived in Fear). There are also many new songs in various styles by a phalanx of composers, among them Eddie Perfect, Sia Furler, Dianne Warren, Elliott Wheeler, Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce.
These songs were presumably intended to advance the plot, but the lyrics were most often unintelligible, because of excessive amplification and brassy orchestrations. Hopefully a cast recording will reveal their lyrics.
There are many highlights in the show. Personal favourites include the lovely staging of Time after Time where Fran and Scott dance on the rooftop against a backdrop of a Hills Hoist clothes-line with Baz Luhrmann’s ubiquitous Coca Cola neon sign trade-mark twinkling in the background, while below them, Scott’s father, Doug Hastings (a memorable characterisation by Drew Forsythe) dances alone with his own memories. It’s a powerful and touching image.
Then there’s the truly exciting first act finale when Rico (Fernando Mira) with the support of Abuela (Natalie Gamsu, who steals every scene she is in) teach Scott the Paso Doble. The low points include the time-wasting audience-participation scenes where audience members are brought up on stage.
Strong performances abound, including those of Robert Grubb as the lugubrious Barry Fife, Heather Mitchell as Scott’s loud and over-wrought mother, Nadia Coyote drop-dead-gorgeous as Tina Sparkle, and Sophia Kato deliciously spiteful as Liz Holt.
Undeniably handsome, a terrific dancer and possessing a serviceable voice, Thomas Lacey surprisingly lacked the charisma necessary carry off the central role in a show of this size. Scott Hastings is a hugely demanding on-stage role. Hopefully Lacey will develop more presence as the season progresses.
Phoebe Panaretos fared better as Fran. Following some unconvincing opening scenes and some unexpectedly dodgy notes in her songs, she quickly settled into a charming stage presence, although her dancing in the finale would certainly not have won her the competition.
Given that whole impetus of the story is to have Scott and Fran win the climactic dance championship, the staging of this event proved a rather disappointing anti-climax, especially after all the razzle dazzle that had gone before. The show seemed to run out of new ideas at this point and despite the best efforts of the large cast, the ending seemed to fizzle into endless bows.
Doubtless over the next few months, Baz Luhrmann, clever director that he is, will continue to finesse this production, tweak some details, and maybe eliminate a song or two to expose the heart which is currently beating below the feathers and sequins.
Meanwhile, despite the quibbles, Strictly Ballroom is a must-see party show, spectacular to look at and delightfully entertaining.
Book: Baz Luhmann and Craig Pearce Original Score and arrangements: Elliott Wheeler Director: Baz Luhrmann Set and Costume Designer: Catherine Martin Choreographer: John O’Connell Musical Supervisor: Max Lambert
Strictly Ballroom the Musical
Sydney Lyric Theatre, Pirrama Road, Pyrmont
Performance: Saturday 12 April 2014 – 8.00pm
Season currently playing to 6 July 2014
Bookings: 1300 795 267 or online at: www.ticketmaster.com.au
For more information, visit: www.strictlyballroomthemusical.com.au for details.
Image: Thomas Lacey as Scott and Phoebe Panaretos as Fran – by Jeff Busby
Review: Bill Stephens