Strictly Ballroom: The Musical
Sydney Lyric Theatre, April 12
Baz Luhrmann has the luxury of adapting his own film for the musical stage but like any other director attempting the same manoeuvre, he's only got so much wriggle room. The audience is here to see what they know and love. Any surprises sprung had better be good ones. Anything less is just a speed bump.
Not content to merely adapt his 1992 film to the stage, Luhrmann and his team attempt to create an audience-involving frame around the show. Dance Federation emcee JJ Silvers (Mark Owen-Taylor, smooth as a Kraft cheese slice) spins records as the audience filters in. Once everyone is seated, he segments a colour-coded auditorium into cheer squads. As warm-ups go, it's efficient, but it's a warm-up nonetheless. From the get-go, Strictly Ballroom the Musical shows a tendency to milk applause rather than earn it.
Luhrmann's opening shot – ballroom dancers splashed across the stage – is a stunner. The show's promise is encapsulated in that moment. It is too quickly released, however. Within seconds, the stage is a restless, often indecipherable whirl. The opening number – lyrics set to Strauss's Blue Danube – assaults the ear and, thanks to ragged singing, is largely incomprehensible.
Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce don't stray far from the original screenplay and the story unfolds easily. Most of the audience is at least one step ahead and waiting for the show to catch up, however. It's a pantomime for the most part, but the key sequences - Scott and Fran's tentative first steps, for example - are well handled. The show suffers from an allergy to any kind of nuance, but the main characters emerge clearly.
Things settle by the time we get to Fran's backyard for the Paso Doble sequence. Natalie Gamsu (Abuela) and Fernando Mira (Rico) create a centre of gravity for the scene and with musicians on stage, Ballroom stops spinning its wheel for a few minutes - until a reworded Habanera from Bizet's Carmen drags us out of the moment by the scruff of the neck and into the interval.
Most of the cast find moments to shine. Phoebe Panaretos makes us care for her ugly duckling Fran, particularly when she is assailed by the spray-tanned and scary-lean likes of Nadia Coote (Tina Sparkle) and Ash Bee (Vanessa Cronin).
As Scott, Thomas Lacey has too few opportunities to reveal the rebel's beating heart. He's a fine dancer, but too easily overpowered in song.
The support cast is excellent, led by Robert Grubb as Federation supremo Barry Fife. Heather Mitchell is outstanding as Scott's ever-smiling mother Shirley. Drew Forsythe tugs our sympathies as Doug, and Bob Baines is pitch-perfect as the mincing Les Kendall.
Andrew Cook creates something appealing from the little he's given as Scott's best mate Wayne. Rohan Browne reduces Ken Railings to a hammy drunk act. Tyler Coppin (Terry Best) and Damien Bermingham (Merv) are wasted.
Catherine Martin's costumes are a flashy eyeful and deserve every second they get in the spotlight. Hugh Vanstone's lighting plot delights in showstopper effects. John O'Connell's choreography fills the frame attractively though his dancing mirror sequence (to Shooting Star, penned by Diane Warren) is risible and Scott and Fran's big number – which should have the audience jumping out of their seats – falls short.
Musically speaking, Barry Fife's Dance to Win, written by Eddie Perfect, is one of the few jewels among commissioned songs that are generically attractive but dramatically ineffective. In Love is in the Air, the show has its anthem, but the potential for its use as a teasing leitmotif is overlooked. Luhrmann should have made a genuine jukeboxer out of Ballroom and saved everyone a lot of time and money. That way, we might have been dancing in the aisles, just as the show's creators no doubt dreamed we would.