Review: Razzle-dazzle fights content in ‘Strictly Ballroom’

musical theatre

“Strictly Ballroom the Musical,” created by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, scoring and arrangements by Elliot Wheeler, at Sydney Lyric Theatre, Star City, Sydney, until July 6, bookings to ticketmaster.com.au

Reviewed by Helen Musa

BAZ Luhrmann gives us a bit of the old razzle-dazzle in this stage adaptation of his ground breaking 1992 Cannes hit, “Strictly Ballroom” but, overblown and over-staged, it may not quite entice the wider audiences at which it is aimed.

Phoebe Panoretos and Thomas Lacey as Fran and Scott

Phoebe Panoretos and Thomas Lacey as Fran and Scott

The Sydney Lyric Theatre has been quite transformed, with coloured-coded lame overlays on the seats, retro-posters adorning the auditorium and a huge mirror ball to cast its glitter over all of us in an effort to conjure up nostalgia for an era before TV dance shows took over the world.

But Luhrmann and his creative partner, costume designer Catherine Martin, have forgotten that in the theatre, sequins and feathers can never make up for genuine humanity.

Dramaturgical problems abound in the show, with many entirely superfluous scenes which drew the evening out. One such was a scene in which the female dancers humiliate the “ugly duckling” character, Fran, played by Phoebe Panaretos, whose entrance was greeted by a round of applause from those who knew the story.

The central character, individualist dancer Scott Hastings, disappears beneath a lacklustre performance by Thomas Lacey, so that the focus shifts firmly to Fran and to Doug, Scott’s outcast father, played by Drew Forsythe in one of the few convincing performances of the evening.

Awash with colour – the competing ballroom dancers were colour-coded to match sections of the audience who barracked for them – the evening saw showcase dancing, number after number, that failed to sparkle. Indeed, the only electrifying dancing of the evening came from Fernando Mira as the suburban flamenco dancer, Rico.

Much of the acting was stereotyped and lacklustre, with the over the top characters like dance czar Barry (Robert Grubb) and the MC JJ Silvers (Mark Owen-Taylor) disappointingly sketchy. By contrast, in the film version, Luhrmann achieved a surreal quality by reining in these characters in, but it just didn’t translate to the stage.

Above all, it was the music that disappointed. It just wasn’t a night that had you humming along. Some songs came from the movie, but added to these was a mishmash of new songs from star popular composers Sia Furler, Diane Warren, David Foster, and satirist Eddie Perfect.

Because of poor miking and brassy delivery it was often difficult to hear the words. When we did, we were treated to embarrassing new lyrics for the “Habanera” and  “The Blue Danube” written  by Wheeler and Luhrmann and billed as “via Johann Strauss” and “via Bizet”.

Drew Forsythe as outcast father Doug

Drew Forsythe as outcast father Doug

Luhrmann may have forgotten that on the stage silence is more palpable than noise, so that one of the most touching scenes of the night, played out to the Robert Hyman/Cindy Lauper number “Time after Time”, saw Scott and Fran high on the roof upstage, but completely outclassed by the lone Doug dancing with a chair, downstage. We felt his pain.

Razzle dazzle

Razzle dazzle

In the musical “Chicago” Billy Flynn asserts: “Give ‘em the old double whammy/Daze and dizzy ‘em/Back since the days of old Methuselah/Everyone loves the big bambooz-a-lah.”

Seemingly operating on this principle, Luhrmann has engaged hundreds of creatives to give us dazzling costumes, loud popular music and audience participation drawn from club shows, but he has not given us a show with heart.

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