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LOVE was certainly in the air last night when the Canberra Philharmonic Society presented the first non-professional production of “Baz Luhmann’s Strictly Ballroom – The Musical”.
When Luhmann’s dazzling, multi-million dollar production toured Australia in 2014/15 it received mixed reviews, mainly because the story tended to get lost in a surfeit of extravagant production numbers.
Since that tour, the show has been extensively reworked for international production and Philo was quick off the mark to secure the non-professional rights for this version. It was also very canny in securing the services of experienced director Chris Baldock to lead this production, which remarkably, holds up very well in comparison to the original.
By eliminating some extraneous songs and replacing them with new specially-written songs by Eddie Perfect, the storyline has been clarified, placing the focus firmly on the blossoming romance between the self-absorbed champion ballroom dancer, Scott Hastings and his shy but talented admirer, Fran.
Ylaria Rogers gives a captivating performance as Fran, the young dancer who understands what Scott is trying to achieve, and anxious to help him achieve it. Her transition from hesitant beginner to potential champion is carefully charted and a joy to watch.
While his ballroom dance technique is clearly not his strength, Joel Hutchings gives a plucky performance as Scott Hastings, along the way executing some truly impressive moves, especially in the cleverly choreographed solo in Act 1. The scenes between Scott and Fran are particularly affecting, especially when Scott begins to teach Fran some of his moves, and later, in perhaps the highlight of the show, when Fran’s father (Tomas Dietz), teaches him the Spanish pasodoble.
With its huge cast, “Strictly Ballroom” contains a plethora of great character roles. Astute casting has resulted in many memorable performances, far too many to mention individually. However, it would be remiss not to acknowledge Pat Gallaher and Paul Sweeney, outstanding as the conniving Barry Fife and his bumbling offsider Les Kendle; Tracy Noble and Ian Croker, funny and touching as Scott’s former dance-champion parents, Shirley and Doug Hastings; and Berin Denham ( JJ Silvers) , Emma Nichols ( Tina Sparkle), Peer Karmel ( Ken Railings) Liam Downing ( Wayne Burns), Kirrily Cornwell (Abuela) and Tomas Dietz (Rico), and two remarkable junior performers, Jake Keen (Luke) and particularly Isabella Fraser (Kylie Hastings) for turning a wardrobe malfunction into a magic moment.
Despite the usual first-night technical glitches with sound and lighting cues, which will no doubt be rectified for future performances, there is so much about this production to admire – Baldock’s masterly direction and his expertise in marshalling Philo’s considerable resources to successfully conjure up the rarefied world of competition ballroom dancing – Ian Croker’s clever mirrored set design which allowed the many scenery changes to be accomplished seamlessly – Anna Senior’s eye-popping costumes which combined with the imaginative and resourceful choreography of Emma Nikolic and Karen Brock, provided a professional gloss to the succession of spectacular production numbers.
Over the years the Canberra Philharmonic Society has provided many outstanding productions of great musicals. This production of “Strictly Ballroom” is certainly up there among their best. Don’t miss it.