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Strictly Ballroom the Musical

Stage Musical Review

With the ship having sailed a couple of weeks ago, the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) Lyric Theatre has been given a sparkle makeover, as they last night kicked off their six week run of Strictly Ballroom the Musical. Directed by Baz Luhrmann and featuring a creative team of which several members were involved in the original 1992 film, this stage adaptation is a welcoming mix of songs, dance numbers, crowd participation and quirkiness – delivering an experience which is appropriate for both newcomers and those familiar with the classic source material.

A Classic Film Bolstered With Many New Songs

Strictly Ballroom the Musical is based on the Australian romantic comedy film ‘Strictly Ballroom’, which debuted in Australia during 1992. Retaining the same core storyline and its renown songs (Time After Time and Love is in the Air), this stage adaptation features many new plot additions/extensions and a number of new songs. The songs in particular were a highlight, as not only were completely new songs developed for the musical, but they also gave the original songs new life in the Strictly Ballroom world (rather than just being background music) and added lyrics to some of the original instrumental tracks. Although the core plot may not have changed, the experience from start to finish is considerably different from the film.

For those not familiar with the story of Strictly Ballroom, it follows the story of Australian ballroom dancer Scott Hastings, who aspires to win the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championship. But while the Australian Dancing Federation is very strict with regards to the movements that dancers can use on-stage (Thus, “Strictly Ballroom”), Scott desires to use his own moves on stage. After losing his dance partner due to his flamboyant attitude to dance, his family and acquaintances seek to quickly find him a new partner and get him to toe the line. Meanwhile, Scott’s attention falls upon the beginner dancer Fran (Just Fran), who despite not being as skilled as him, shares the same passion about creatively dancing.

There are two distinct elements to Strictly Ballroom’s storyline, one which worked very well and one which was good albeit felt a bit rushed. The storyline surrounding Scott Hastings and his desire to win the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championship with his own moves was surprisingly in-depth and really enjoyable to watch. Amongst the flashy dancing and quite a few catchy songs, there was adequate character development, conflict and the more-than-occasional piece of quirky comedy which really helped deliver an entertaining experience. That being said, the attempt to develop a relationship between Scott and Fran felt a bit hasty and a little bit pushed to the side at times. The pair’s interaction with other characters in general turned out to be more interesting than what was between the two of them in my opinion. This is not to say there were not some great moments between the pair, with some very heartwarming scenes in the second act.

There was a good number of songs included in Strictly Ballroom the Musical, with particular highlights including Love is in the Air, A Life Lived in Fear, Time After Time and Heavenly Pineapple. The overall quality of the music is high, and they managed to meet a good balance between singing, dancing and acting without sacrificing one element for the other. Unfortunately, there is no soundtrack released for Strictly Ballroom the Musical to date, and I do genuinely hope one is released in the future.

Audience Participation Was Hit and Miss – But Mostly Hit

Strictly Ballroom the Musical presents a number of opportunities for the audience to get involved with the show. Overall, there was one particular “why bother” attempt at audience participation in addition to some fantastic uses of it. Upon walking into the Lyric Theatre, guests are seated in four zones (Green, Pink, Yellow and Blue), each of which are represented by the colour of one’s seat. At the beginning of the show and during the first song, guests are asked to cheer for the dance team representing their seat’s colour. After one set of cheers enthusiastically promoted by MC JJ Silvers, the whole idea is forgotten about. Asides from giving the theatre even more sparkle, it hardly seemed worth the effort colouring every chair for just a minor one minute scene.

On a couple of occasions, audience participation also involved getting members of the audience up on stage, either through individual invitation or open invite. While I can imagine some might dread being asked to go up on stage – going up on stage and watching people on the stage alike are some defining moments of the Strictly Ballroom experience. In my interview with Resident Director Sharon Millerchip in June 2015, she commented “people quite literally dance in the isles by the end of the show“. While there are some limits to this if you are sitting on a balcony like I was, there were a large number of people dancing in both the isles and on-stage during the final number during Opening Night. This level of engagement with an audience is something I would love to see again in other shows, and was a major highlight of Strictly Ballroom the Musical for me.

Those Behind the Triple Threat of Singing, Dancing and Acting

Strictly Ballroom the Musical features an all-Australian cast of 43 members. These include eight children who share the roles of Kylie Hastlings and Luke, and a clearly talented adult cast who take on a range of colourful main and secondary characters. Overall the casting is strong, with Phoebe Panaretos shining as lead character Fran. Unfortunately, Thomas Lacey (Scott Hastings) was unable to perform during the Opening Night session, and was replaced by understudy Rohan Browne (Who usually takes on the role of Ken Railings). Although it is always sad to hear of a performer being unable to perform on a shows opening night, Browne did a strong performance as Scott Hastings. Although it is very hard to decide, other personal highlights for me included Darren Gilshenan who recently took on the role of Doug Hastings, Mark Owen-Taylor as MC JJ Silvers and both Natalie Gamsu and Fernado Mira as Abuela and Rico respectively. A special mention must also go to the children in the session I attended (Chloe Guy and Damon Poletto as Kylie Hastings and Luke respectively), whose performances were brilliant.

Many characters often popped in and out as background characters for scenes not involving them. So when a scene takes place in the Kendall Dance studio for example, you might see two or three characters socialising but another few pairs learning to dance. This helped bring additional life to the set, which is one of the show’s biggest talking point for all the right reasons.

The Star of Strictly Ballroom the Musical: Set and Costume Design

When you look at the souvenir program for Strictly Ballroom the Musical (Which despite being $5 more expensive than most recent musical programs, is the best one I have seen in quite some time), the first name next to the profile of Director and Co-Writer Baz Luhrmann is that of Catherine Martin – who served as set and costume designer for the entire show. This placement is well deserved, as she has delivered an aesthetic feast for the eyes with vibrant constructions which rotate 360 degrees, lots of sparkle and a good level of detail which makes the set stand out just as much as the singing, dancing or acting. This is in addition to the whole theatre being decorated with “themed notices and advertising” on the walls, the aforementioned coloured chairs and a giant disco ball hanging above the audience.

Also from Catherine Martin are costume designs, which range from simple everyday clothes to flashy and colourful ballroom gowns which on many occasions seem to be attempting to out-sparkle the set design. Extra points must go to the Fruit Suit, which is present in the fittingly named song “The State Championships – Heavenly Pineapple”.

Final Words on Strictly Ballroom the Musical

While I do wonder whats in store for this show in the future given no additional legs have been announced to date, Strictly Ballroom the Musical highlights the creative flair held by talent in Australia, allowing them to create major stage musicals that can be just as enticing and entertaining as those created with initial releases on Broadway or London’s West End in mind. Featuring a storyline friendly to both young and old alike, this show takes classic source material and provides a fun and uplifting show I would see to unwind from the stresses of life. It is ultimately in my mind a great combination of stellar dancing, enjoyable singing and just a little bit of Australian quirkiness.

If Strictly Ballroom the Musical sounds like something you would be interested in seeing, it will be held in the QPAC Lyric Theatre until October 17 2015. Ticketing information can be found via the Queensland Performing Arts Centre website.

Special Thanks

Global Creatures and Queensland Performing Arts Centre for providing opening night tickets to this show.

Australian Tour of Strictly Ballroom the Musical

No other Australian legs of Strictly Ballroom the Musical have been announced for Australia at this time. There are also no announced plans to bring this show outside of Australia either.

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