Strictly Ballroom the Musical

Book by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, adapted by Terry Johnson
West Yorkshire Playhouse and Global Creatures
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Sam Lips (Scott) and Gemma Sutton (Fran) Credit: Alastair Muir
Lauren Stroud (Liz), Sam Lips (Scott), Gary Watson (Ken), Michelle Bishop (Pam) and Company Credit: Alastair Muir
Richard Grieve (Les), Tamsin Carroll (Shirley), Frazer Powell (Luke), Tally Aspinall (Kylie) and Stephen Matthews (Doug) Credit: Alastair Muir

The popularity of BBC 1’s Strictly Come Dancing means that millions of viewers have become armchair experts in the Viennese Waltz and the Paso Doble. However, when Strictly Ballroom premièred at the Cannes Film Festival in 1992, ballroom dancing was widely regarded as a strange remnant from a bygone era.

Strictly Ballroom’s journey to success is truly a David and Goliath story. What began as a 60-minute student play in 1984 eventually became one of the most successful Australian films of all time, earning more than $80 million at the box-office and winning a slew of awards, including 3 BAFTAs. Now, more than 20 years after the film, Luhrmann’s love letter to ballroom dancing returns to the stage as a full-fledged musical extravaganza.

Playwright Terry Johnson’s adaptation sticks closely to the plot of Luhrmann and Craig Pearce’s original screenplay. Talented young ballroom dancer Scott Hastings (Sam Lips) seems poised to win the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championship, but his desire to dance in his own unique style means that he is constantly coming up against the ballroom officials—most notably Barry Fife (Julius D’Silva), the corrupt president of the Australian Dancing Federation—who insist that he perform traditional steps.

After losing a competition to a rival couple, Scott’s long-suffering partner Liz (Lauren Stroud) deserts him for his buffoonish rival Ken Railings (Gary Watson) just weeks before the Championship. Scott’s overbearing mother Shirley (Tamsin Carroll) and dance coach Les (Richard Grieve)—former dance partners and now middle-aged dancer teachers—hold try-outs to find him a new partner, but unbeknownst to them he starts training in secret with ugly duckling Fran (Gemma Sutton), a beginner dancer in his mother’s school. Will Scott and Fran dazzle the judges at the Pan-Pacific?

The success of the film was largely due to the way it mixed thrilling dance moves with an archetypal story in which individuals fight against the system. Although the musical doesn’t have the same warmth and charm of the original, director and choreographer Drew McConie manages to convey the overwhelming joy of dancing through a series of dazzling routines in which the performers are given the chance to display their considerable talents. Sam Lips is particularly impressive, bringing an astonishing athleticism to the role of Scott. That said, the most electrifying moment of the night comes from Fernando Mira as Fran’s father Rico when he schools Scott in Latin dance by performing some simple but dramatic Flamenco steps.

The show is a visual treat from beginning to end. Four-time Oscar-winner Catherine Martin’s outlandish costumes are a sight to behold, perfectly capturing the overblown preposterousness of ballroom dancing in the eighties. Soutra Gilmour’s ingenious folding sets recreate the key locations from Luhrmann’s film and allow for lightning-fast scene changes. The lighting design by Tim Lutkin and Hugh Vanstone provides some of the evening’s most inspired moments, particularly the image of Scott and Fran dancing in silhouette.

The show is packed with striking performances, particularly from the supporting cast. Tamsin Carroll gives a memorable comic turn as Scott’s pushy mother, and Stephen Matthews is delightfully odd as Scott’s father. Eve Polycarpou injects great warmth into the show as Fran’s grandmother. Richard Dempsey and Richard Grieve both give scene-stealing performances, capturing the camp artifice of much ballroom dancing, and Julius D’Silva is excellent as the villain.

The main area in which the show falls down is the music itself. The songbook for Strictly Ballroom the Musical retains the key songs from the original film, but consists mainly of new tunes. A few of these songs are witty and entertaining, particularly the amusing "Dance to Win" (written by Eddie Perfect) in which the oily Barry Fife tries to seduce Scott into towing the line. For the most part, however, these new songs are not as resonant as Cyndi Lauper’s "Time After Time" or George Young and Harry Vanda’s "Love Is in the Air". Indeed, the musical highlight of the evening comes from Gemma Sutton when she delivers a sensuous version of the Doris Day standard "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps" in Spanish.

I have no doubt that Strictly Ballroom the Musical will further cement West Yorkshire Playhouse’s reputation for staging large-scale musicals. Although it has less heart and wit than the original film, the show is a bright and colourful spectacle, filled with show-stopping choreography and memorable comic performances.

Reviewer: James Ballands

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