Baz's latest opus doesn't take home the trophy but it's definitely got legs
Most musicals that reach us in Australia – the ones that have seasons in established venues – have been honed over successive seasons, and arrive fully conceived via polished productions. Strictly Ballroom The Musical is not one of these; as a new work in its debut season, it will ideally get tighter and more polished with time and some finessing from the creative team.
But it is a lot of fun – and it somewhat overwhelms you with a combination of feel-good numbers, sweet young leads Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos, and old-fashioned razzle-dazzle. You can almost picture Catherine Martin, Baz’s wife and long-term costume design partner, sitting backstage and pondering: “More anything? More everything!” Her creations are gorgeous, bejewelled showgirl-meets-ballroom numbers that would make Paris’ finest cabaret institutions jealous.
One of the show’s biggest issues is not the performances or the design or the narrative (which is a more or less a dead ringer for the 1992 film version, with an injection of the original 1984 NIDA production’s anti-authoritarian politics) but the musical part of the equation, which feels like what it is: a spattering of songs, penned by various writers, peppering the show’s narrative scenes. Some are great (there is one classic Baz full-ensemble dance-floor blitz at the end of the first act that brings the house down) others less so – but they don’t feel like part of the one soundtrack. Numbers by comedy-cabaret veteran Eddie Perfect and alt-pop singer Sia sit alongside adaptations of Jean Paul Young’s ‘Love is in the Air’, Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ and the ‘Habanera’ from Carmen. The solo and duet numbers sung by Scott and Fran, combined with their pure voices, have a distinctly Disney quality.
The placement of the songs also doesn’t always work: ‘Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps’, which backgrounds the scene in which Scott and Fran dance backstage in the film version, is here sung by Panaretos-as-Fran, taking the lyrics from subtext to a raging ur-text that is out of joint with the characters at this point in the narrative.
It’s a shame that the musical aspect of the show as a whole lets down what is otherwise very strong: pitch-perfect casting of all the roles, great comic performances (from big roles like Heather Mitchell as Mrs Hastings, Drew Forsythe as Doug Hastings and Robert Grubb as Barry Fife, through to smaller parts like Rohan Browne’s drunken Ken Railings and Sophia Katos as Scott’s drama-queen dance partner Liz), and fantastic design.
Not everyone will be a fan of the hyperactive staging: numbers are interrupted, slabs of the set move to the foreground or spin around the stage like drunken dancers; the use of the set revolve is more enthusiastic than a toddler in the last throes of a cordial overdose. But it does keep things moving – and it certainly reflects the rapid-fire pace and camera work that Baz has made his trademark.
The verdict? This reviewer thoroughly enjoyed the show, and reckons there’s something in there for the less critical viewer who is willing to get swept up in the sequins and samba. A seasoned show it ain’t, but this stage adaptation definitely has legs.