THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Baz Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom: The Musical
Piccadilly Theatre, London
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
A lot can go wrong between an out of town try out and the big West End opening and sadly it all has here. When the supremely talented director/choreographer Drew McOnie staged a revised UK premiere of this 2014 Aussie musical at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2016 he nailed that perfect blend of camp pastiche and heartfelt romance which was the core of Luhrmann's much loved 1992 hit movie.
It was another Cinderella tale of the maverick ballroom dancer who just wants to do his own steps and the shy young Spanish dancer he takes on as his rookie partner. There was also a poignant theme of loss of nerve, or selling out on your dream and how that marked the lives of the previous generation. Here all that nuance is lost as they've ramped up the campery to the point of gurning and forgotten that this also needs heart. One suspects too many cooks, or rather too many producers, have waded in.
In the larger thrust stage in Leeds, dance numbers had space to draw out some ballroom expression. McOnie a former competitive ballroom dancer knows his stuff but here it is compressed so that the ballroom/latin styling is lost and we end up with angular parodies of it all. Of course it's near impossible to put ballroom dance behind a proscenium arch as you just end up twirling on the spot. The ballroom is ridiculed here and the only dance taken seriously is the ‘authentic' (a dubious concept) Paso Doble of Fran's father (Fernando Mira) who, quite rightly, steals the show and captures hearts with some stunning flamenco moves.
Then there's the songs. Most people forget this movie wasn't actually a musical at all but rather a heightened melodrama laced in wit and sprinkled with a few dance standards and catchy pop hits to set the mood, the most famous being ‘Love Is in the Air'. Here, that perfect ‘samba' number is diminished in a ridiculously truncated finale whose purpose is more to get the audience up dancing (always a mistake) than actually delivering the emotional payoff you need at the end.
The other big change is the creation of a new MC-type role for pop star Will Young. This has the benefit of having a pop pro to carry the bulk of the singing, which he does admirably, but it ends up like a jukebox at a karaoke bar with a playlist of hits by Sting, Bowie, Grace Jones, REM, Whitney Houston etc. which have no relation to the material and aren't sung in full. Again, it screams we don't trust the material. Young is either superfluous or acting like he strayed in from a panto.
As the hero Scott, the lithe and elfin Jonny Labey, who became a star on an ITV dance talent show, has presence but fares much better at the dancing than he does at the characterisation. Zizi Strallen too has the dance moves down but plays Fran, the ugly duckling who becomes a swan, totally for laughs, thereby killing off the emotional engagement needed to make her part work.
Craig Pearce's witty dialogue, steeped in Australian audacity, provides a platform for some great character actors to shine and Anna Francolini as Shirley, the stage mother from hell, and Gerard Horan as the demonic President of the Dance Federation, Barry Fife, are both a joy. At one stage he intones "One Dancer, One Step, One Federation". The book wittily demolished the self-regard of the dance establishment and their pompous hierarchies. Eva Polycarpou revisits her generic Mediterranean grandma from Central Casting but has great fun along the way.
Catherine Martin (Lurhrmann's wife and multi Oscar winning costume designer) offers us spangly costumes which wittily re-define lurid - and that's just the ‘80s casual clothes of these day-glo characters.