Whilst Strictly Ballroom the Musical harnesses much of Baz Luhrmann’s extravagance, the magic is dispelled by the erratic pace of its storytelling.
When adapting a film for the stage, comparisons from the source material are inevitable – especially when the original is as unique as a Baz Luhrmann creation. One expects to see a cacophony of sound and vision so masterfully blended that they just teeter on the edge of overwhelming the senses that are unique to his productions.
Replacing Annie at the Piccadilly Theatre, Strictly Ballroom The Musical has moments that live up to Luhrmann’s trademark ostentation. As the play opens, we’re promised “love, freedom and of course, sequins”. In that respect, we’re not disappointed. Costume designer Catherine Martin (Luhrmann’s wife) has reportedly incorporated 200,000 diamantes as well as 4,000 ostrich feathers in the production. Each costume out dazzles former frocks as the play progresses until the stage becomes an explosion of blinding colours and textures as the dancers weave amongst each other.
Set in Australia, the story focuses on two ballroom dancers as they fight to dance in their own unconventional way (and fall in love in the process). Sequins and fleeting moments aside, the production is brought down in part by the disjointed construction of the narrative – with the show’s emcee, Wally Strand (Will Young) tending to disrupt – rather than aid – the story.
Whilst he brings a lighthearted campiness to the narrator role, there isn’t a huge amount of substance to the character (as much the producers/writers fault as Young’s, perhaps). When Will does take on well-known pop classics, they provide the depth of a karaoke rendition and are introduced when characters are experiencing intense emotions. Rather than augmenting these emotional moments then, Will Young only serves to distract us and as he accounts for 95% of the total singing, ‘the Musical’ element of Strictly Ballroom, therefore, becomes incredibly tenuous.
Stand out performances come from Stephen Matthews as Doug Matthews, the timorous father to main character Scott Hastings (Jonny Labey). Gerard Horan also balances strong comedic timing with a more menacing and manipulative side as Barry Fife, the controlling judge of the dance competitions who seeks to uphold an autocratic order to them. Whilst Horan perfectly encapsulates the simultaneous charisma and tyranny of Fife, too much was done to draw parallels between the character and a certain divisive despot currently in power…I struggled to understand what it added.
Another unavoidable parallel this play draws is that of Strictly Come Dancing. With the help of the BBC dancing competition, ballroom dancing has come to the forefront of the national consciousness and this means that the dancing in this play is likely to be scrutinised that much more. Awarded director/choreographer Drew McOnie is clearly highly aware of this – and Strictly Ballroom The Musical’s biggest strength is in its intricate choreography which often is utilised to seamlessly move the set and create stunning transitions. McOnie is able to direct a large ensemble of highly talented dancers to create an entrancing visual element to the story. This show is perfect to take any ballroom dancing fan to, working best when the dancing is very much at the forefront.