Review: STRICTLY BALLROOM (The Musical)

by Lynn on May 9, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Created by Baz Luhrmann
Book by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce
Adapted by Terry Johnson
Directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie
Musical direction by Ben Atkinson
Set by Soutra Gilmour
Costumes by Catherine Martin
Sound by Gareth Owen
Lighting by Tim Lutkin
Cast: Tamsin Carroll
Richard Dempsey
Julius D’Silva
Charlotte Gooch
Richard Grieve
Sam Lips
Liam Marcellino
Stephen Matthews
Fernando Mira
Eve Polycarpou
Lauren Stroud
Gemma Sutton
Garry Watson

Over amplified and underwhelming.

Full disclosure! I never saw the Baz Luhrmann movie so have no idea what it was like and of course won’t even think of comparing the stage version to anything filmic.

The Story. We are in Australia in 1985. Scott Hastings wants to win the Transpacific Ballroom Dance Contest. He’s practiced since he was six and now he’s an adult who’s won all sorts of prizes and the last one to win is the Transpacific. He studies in the dance studio run by a slippery man, Les Kendall who was his mother Shirley’s dance partner years ago. Scott’s silent, nebbishy father Doug also works there and is treated with contempt by his well-coiffed wife. Apparently there is a dark secret between Shirley, Doug, Les and Barry Fife, he with the snap-on hair, who runs the competitions with a firm hand. Barry is adamant that the integrity of the ballroom dancing be pure and that there should be no variation in the steps. Scott decides to thumb his nose at convention and use his own steps at a competition and is disqualified. The disqualification results in his arrogant partner Liz quits dancing with him. Where will Scott get another partner? Why, over there, with Fran (Just Fran), who for two years has quietly swept the floor and pines to dance with Scott. He teaches her the steps and a dance duo is born. But will they win? Will the secrets that have been hidden all these years be revealed? Will Doug Hastings get up the gumption to open his mouth and speak?

The Production. The first thing to be aware of is that we are blasted with over-amplification of the orchestra and the cast. Sorry, but it’s not a rock concert and I need my ear drums to actually try and make out the lyrics of the existing pop songs that are dotted into the fabric of this musical. With the over-amplification the lyrics are distorted by the garish, tinny sound. It also doesn’t help that often the dialogue is distorted as well.

As the show is really about Scott and his quest for individuality and Fran’s (Just Fran) quest for Scott their scenes together are quiet, tentative and rather sweet. It’s the usual story of a princely man taking an ordinary woman and she transforms into a beauty through the benefit of a kiss and a twirl. Sam Lips is charming as Scott, strapping—well they only gave him a right t-shirt to wear for the most part—and agile. Gemma Sutton as Fran (Just Fran) is feisty with a strong voice and she too has her graceful moments.

Soutra Gilmour’s large set goes up many levels and director Drew McOnie seems compelled to fill it with distracting, pedestrian direction. For some reason there are characters on all levels of the set, often looking down on the action. Who are these people and why the constant surveillance?

At one point in the musical there is a scene playing out on the stage at the same time there is a scene going on waaaaaay up there at the top of the set stage right. In that elevated scene Scott is being taught the finer points of the paso doble, by Fran’s father, Rico an expert in this Spanish dance. Fran’s family is Spanish. Ok, where are we supposed to look? It’s not as if we can see both scenes with peripheral vision, so where do we look, while we sacrifice what we are not looking at?

And while McOnie is touted as an up and coming choreographer, I must confess I find his choreography for Scott, when he breaks out to do his own thing, to be rather clunky and almost awkward. That said, the choreography for Rico during “¡Magnifico!” is thrilling. Fernando Mira as Rico is commanding, dangerous, sensual and puts passion in every Spanish step of that dance. He is ably joined by Eve Polycarpou as Abuela who has stylish attitude for days and ‘pipes’ like a steel rod. Both together makes one sit up and be grateful for their presence.

Comment. Can you pack any more clichéd stories into one musical? The family secret that is hidden away and you wonder if it be revealed; the husband and wife who don’t like each other but once did and will they find their love again; the young dance wiz and his quest for individuality and the plain woman who transforms into a beauty because of him; the silent father who needs to talk to his son and the son is too busy to talk to him; OY. The storylines flip almost as much as pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. And the happy ending with Scott’s parents is a cheat and not earned. (no spoiler alert–you can see it coming from as far away as New Zealand). Baz Luhrman and Craig Pearce wrote the book of the musical (and the film) and Terry Johnson adapted the book. All three have had success in their various endeavors. So why is Strickly Ballroom (the Musical) so tedious? Perhaps the film is better.

Began: April 26, 2017.
Closes: June 25, 2017.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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