Time Out Melbourne

Time Out catches up with the two unknowns starring in the musical blockbuster of the year – and it turns out working with Baz is about as high-energy as you’d expect

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos met for the first time in
a waiting room, during a call-back. Both are from Melbourne, around the same age (he’s 20, she’s 23) and they decided to read a scene together. “I was like, ‘We were pretty good, huh?’” Panaretos recalls. Lacey adds: “From that moment, every time I got a call-back I’d walk into the room and see her and be like, ‘Oh cool, Phoebe’s here.’”

The show is Strictly Ballroom: The Musical – a collaboration between Bazmark (Baz Luhrmann and wife-and-collaborator Catherine Martin) and Global Creatures (the King Kong musical) that, if all goes according to plan, will be the stage blockbuster of the year.

Time Out first met the fresh-faced, wide-eyed leads in early December, on the day of the casting announcement. The angle was this: Baz had taken more than a year to find his perfect Fran, and here she was – an unknown VCA graduate with just a handful of productions under her belt; no media experience to speak of; a stronger singer than a dancer. And here was her co-star: more experienced (a string of parts in major musical productions and an ongoing role in ABC’s Dance Academy, among other TV credits); more media-savvy; really knows his way around a dancefloor (he started at the age of two).

If it sounds like a younger, prettier version of the Scott-and-Fran fairy tale that Australia fell in love with in Luhrmann’s 1992 film, so much the better. Where Scott and Fran’s moment of truth is the Pan Pacific championships, for these two aspiring stars it was a gruelling audition process that, in Panaretos’s case, lasted more than 12 months and numerous call-backs. “As it came down to the end, there was just more and more expected from us – we’d get to the end of reading a scene and Baz would tell us to just keep going, with no lines on the page. So we’d have to think on our feet, try and stay in character, and just keep going,” she recalls.

Weeks after Lacey had been cast, Panaretos had a breakthrough: “We were rehearsing the scene with ‘Love Is in the Air.’ Thom and I went from start to finish – ten minutes – the first time. Baz said, ‘Yep, that’s what I want – that’s it.’ I found out that afternoon,” she says grinning.

“With a lot of musical theatre storytelling is left until last”

Cut to February, Carriageworks, where the Strictly team are rehearsing. Panaretos and Lacey somehow look just as fresh-faced, despite 11-hour days that are not infrequently followed by informal run-throughs in the lounge room of the apartment they share. And while the bar has been set very high for them, they couldn’t be happier. Working with Baz, original Strictly choreographer John ‘Cha Cha’ O’Connell and the high-profile cast (Robert Grubb, Heather Mitchell) is a master class not just in performance, but storytelling.

“The storytelling is the most important thing with Baz,” says Lacey. “Sadly, with a lot of musical theatre it’s the thing that’s left until last. I think we’re in such a fortunate position to be creating a new show that’s totally Australian – we can really put a stamp on music theatre in this country and, hopefully, have a real impact.”

Strictly Ballroom The Musical is coming to Her Majesy's Theatre in Jan 2015. Exact dates TBA.

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Updated on 26 Oct 2014.

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