Strictly Ballroom’s sweet and simple story falls under the weight of ornamentation

In Baz Luhrman’s Strictly Ballroom, every actor and dancer on stage gives their best, as professionals always do. But their courageous efforts can’t save the musical from its weaknesses and a sense that the show is still a work in progress.

It begins with a well-worn theatrical device – audience participation – suggesting, in this case, that we are barracking for our favourites at a real ballroom dancing competition.

Before the show begins, the audience takes their seats in one of four sections of the auditorium, each a different lollypop colour. You might be in the vivid green section, in which case, when the dancing begins, you are instructed to cheer for the green clothed ballroom dancing couple on stage.

At the end, cast members enter the auditorium to take the hands of (usually more than willing) audience members to lead them to the stage to dance to Love is in the Air. For the final curtain call, the cast has vanished, and the spoilsports still glued to their seats are asked to applaud the onstage audience.

If this musical is ever going to open on Broadway and/or the West End these bookends should be the first to go but they are only one aspect of the show that needs either tightening or a complete reconstruction.

After a very ordinary year for musicals in 2013, Strictly Ballroom was eagerly anticipated with plenty of pre-show buzz, optimism and goodwill and some confidence that a musical based on a movie has a more than a reasonable chance of success – as proved by Billy Elliot and Mary Poppins the Musical. Both succeeded in bringing new dimensions and complexity to their movie predecessors.

The major difference between their success and Strictly Ballroom is a cohesive and memorable score and book. Billy Elliot was written by Lee Hall, with music and lyrics by Elton John and direction by Stephen Daldry, a powerful trio who created a musical that was even more moving and inspiring than the film.

Mary Poppins the Musical was directed by Richard Eyre, the former director of the National Theatre in London. Its score included much loved songs from the 1964 movie, new songs by two composers and a book by Julian Fellowes. The impressive choreography was shared by Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear.

It takes A-teams such as these to ensure that a musical takes wings.

Strictly Ballroom might have worked as a flamboyant jukebox musical, such as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, peppered with catchy songs from the era in which it is set.

Instead, its musical credits are a melange of 29 numbers and of these, the program lists Luhrmann as the lyricist or co-lyricist for 11.

Luhrmann, the director and co-writer of the show, is also listed as a contributor for 10 musical credits.

Eddie Perfect composed and wrote the lyrics for the strongest songs, Dance to Win and Beautiful When You Dance.

Strictly Ballroom also mined the 20th century for a couple of songs, Happy Feet, a Charleston hit of 1930 and Tequila (1958), and includes four songs from the soundtrack of the movie, John Paul Young’s Yesterday’s Hero and Love is in the Air, Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps, and Time After Time.

The most jarring musical choice is the use of Bizet’s Habanera from Carmen for the scene in which Rico, the father of the heroine, Fran, demonstrates how the paso doble should be danced. Bizet, by the way, gets a nod in the musical credits as “via Bizet”.

As for the plot, Strictly Ballroom is a Cinderella story with Fran, the heroine, first appearing as a downtrodden no hoper taunted by competitive, bitchy dancers who represent the Ugly Stepsisters and by Shirley Hastings, the mother of the hero, Scott Hasting. Shirley is both the wicked Stepmother figure as well as a mutton-dressed-as-lamb who will never again have her moment in the spotlight.

As Shirley, Heather Mitchell’s performance is one of the highlights of the show. It’s nuanced, funny and sad. So too is the performance of Drew Forsythe as Scott’s father, Doug, who first appears as a man suffering from a severe overdose of antidepressants but who settles into the default position of Mr Cellophane (“you can look right through me, walk right by me, and never know I’m there”) from the musical, Chicago.

From his first entrance, wearing mud-brown shorts, long socks and a comb over, Forsythe excels as the strong counterpoint to the surrounding sparkle-arkle. He repeatedly draws the eye away from the smorgasbord of clingy lycra and tulle, and more sparkles than Sydney’s harbourside New Year’s Eve.

The lovers, Fran and Scott, are of course the centrepoint of the story. Both Phoebe Panaretas and Thomas Lacey are lovable in these roles. Their strength is their singing rather than their dancing ability. Lacey has a hard act to follow as Paul Mercurio, (Scott in the movie) was a very strong dancer and a member of the Sydney Dance Company for a decade.

John O’Connell’s choreography for Lacey relied in part on a repetitive jazz move known as a barrel roll, a trick that’s not enough to indicate that Scott is a fabulous dancer.

The role calls for a multi-talented performer whose acting, singing and dancing skills are all of the same high level.

O’Connell was a touch restricted in that the dance moves had to follow the traditions of flamenco and ballroom dancing, but his elements of deliberately bad dancing by the studio wannabees were wickedly funny.

Panaretas is a fine singer and a believable Fran who comes into her own in the second act of the musical.

The settings are as busy as peak hour on a freeway with numerous eye distracting moments, none more so than a dance for Scott who is reflected in wheeled-on mirrors that twirl around the stage. Just one mirror would have been fine.

In August last year, in one of the first media releases for Strictly Ballroom, Luhrmann wrote: “From a small student play to my first motion picture and now a full-blown theatrical stage musical, Strictly Ballroom has been an almost thirty year journey for me.

“I have often marvelled at how this story, born so long ago, has been in my life for so many years and has managed to touch, move, entertain and uplift so many different people from so many different backgrounds. I think the simple truth is that, despite all the sequins, outrageous hairdos and classic Hollywood musical plotting, the simple message that there isn’t only one way to cha cha cha, and that within us all we have the true potential to dance through life with our own steps is something that appeals to all of us”.

If only he had kept the message simple. In this newest incarnation of Strictly Ballroom the ornamentation diminishes the integrity of its heart and soul.

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Strictly Ballroom, flashback scene, photo © Douglas Kirkland

Phoebe Panaretos and Thomas Lacey, Strictly Ballroom, photo © Hugh Stewart

Thomas Lacey as Scott Hastings, Strictly Ballroom, photo Associated Press