Strictly Ballroom, the iconic Aussie film from 1992, has returned to life at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre.
Acclaimed director Baz Luhrmann has approached his venture into musical theatre with all the colour and flamboyance we have come to expect in his films, but has he succeeded?
The attempt to transform the Lyric’s auditorium into a suburban dance hall, complete with kitsch advertising and sparkly colour-coded seating, worked. Our master of ceremonies engaged and energised the audience, setting the mood, and audience participation was executed from the offset. The stars were now aligned and a memorable night at the theatre was about to begin.
The opening number didn’t disappoint. The stage, resplendent with colour and glitz, thrust the audience quickly into the world of ballroom dance, complete with colourful characters and quirky Australian subculture, aided by John O’Connell’s choreography and Hugh Vanstone’s lighting.
The story follows the original film very closely; however, it lacked any surprises and chugged along at a slow and occasionally dragging pace. The standout scene was at the end of Act 1 when Scott (Thomas Lacey) was introduced to Fran’s (Phoebe Panaretos) migrant family from the ‘other side of the tracks’. The family – Natalie Gamsu (grandmother Abuela) and Fernando Mira (father Rico) – and extended community teach Scott to ‘feel the rhythm‘, understand the passion and embrace the rich heritage of ‘paso doble’ dance. This was the one memorable scene in the show and was executed beautifully with musicians on stage.
At age 20, Thomas Lacey is dancing his way into the role of Scott admirably. But alongside Phoebe Panaretos (Fran), Thomas is vocally weak. Phoebe, a graduate of the Newtown School of Performing Arts, was awarded the role after an exhaustive search and is a true triple threat as she can dance, sing and act. This said, as the central characters in this show, they collaboratively failed to tug on the audience heartstrings. The emotional journey we took in the film was all but lost.
Catherine Martin’s costume and set designs were, as expected, wonderfully brash and colourful. Her use of scene changes through varying curtains was clever and well executed.
The score includes well-known hits such as “Time After Time”, “Love is in the air” and”Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” as well as new songs of which “Dance to Win,” written by Eddie Perfect and sung by an excellent Robert Grubb as Ballroom Federation president Barry Fife, is the standout.
The very capable support cast also features Heather Mitchell as Scott’s mother Shirley, Drew Forsythe as Doug the father, Bob Baines as the very camp Les Kendall, Andrew Cook as Scott’s mate Wayne, Rohan Browne as the drunken dancer Ken Railings and dancers Nadia Coote (Tina Sparkle) and Ash Bee (Vanessa Cronin).
Throughout the second half of the show, anticipating a showstopper finale with Scott and Fran’s big number, I was left dissatisfied at what ended weakly. Perhaps it’s my fondness for the film version, or maybe it was just badly executed.
Either way, this show is not the triumph so many would expect given the cast and direction. It will, however, always remain a great Australian classic. Who doesn’t love a Cinderella story?