Strictly Ballroom the Musical needs to learn from its own motto: A life lived in fear is a life half-lived. The show is afraid to be a musical.
For a piece that started as a devised stage work at NIDA before it ever became a cult film classic, Strictly Ballroom sure has had a very hard time divorcing itself from the cinematic. It attempts to draw the eye, camera-like, through windows and around corners, and effectively creates a losing battle for dominant perspective and sense of space. This too lessens the effect of the choreography, so critical in a show about dance and dance style – too often the show’s movement isn’t given the chance to breathe and be seen. Baz Luhrmann, director of this journey, has made our viewing experience a battle, and his book – co-written with Craig Pearce – doesn’t make the battle an easier one to fight.
One spends the show waiting, just waiting, for Strictly to commit to what it’s trying to be – “The Musical” is right there in the title – but it just won’t settle. It won’t let the scenes breathe. It won’t use its lyrics, most of the time, to reveal character truths. It won’t give you more than a couple of songs, settling instead to zig and zag between interstitials; snatches of lines, pithy motifs. It won’t get too close. It won’t engage. This is surface stuff only.
Of course, thanks to Catherine Martin, the surface is beautiful – spangles and glitter and kitsch, high-concept costumes and a sense of welcome humor.
But let’s get below the surface.
There is that one perfect moment, iconic, from the film: Scott and Fran are connecting, finally, underneath the glittering Coke sign (never more romantic), while they’re up dancing on the roof of the dance studio. Maybe they can dance together – a partnership born! Scott (a nervous Thomas Lacey), open amateur, local legend, recently on the outs for dancing his own way, finding a new partner in beginner Fran (our saving grace, Phoebe Panaretos), rough but full of fire.
It could have been a defining moment of contemporary musical theatre: Scott and Fran weave, float, dodge the Hills Hoist, finally discover each other as they sing “Time After Time.” Fran won’t fall, Scott will catch her. It is romantic, gorgeous, and beautifully, breathtakingly simple. It feels classical. It feels important. They sing to each other, with each other. Harmony. It starts to happen. Strictly Ballroom the Musical is being a musical. You could hear a pin drop in the theatre.
And then it happens. Strictly giveth, and it taketh away. The number is interrupted, more than once, to show you that at that moment, Scott’s father is dancing downstairs alone. That the world carries on. It’s such a shame because the whole point of that moment on the roof is that the world doesn’t apply right then – Scott isn’t thinking about the Pan Pacifics. Scott isn’t defined by his family or his Dance Federation legacy. Fran isn’t thinking about falling. Fran isn’t thinking about not measuring up. They are existing together and they are the only thing that exists, Scott and Fran, and the steps they forge together.
Taking this moment and filling it with tricks and tics lessens it, makes it seem more untruthful. It makes the show seem afraid to commit to being the moment in a musical that opens a heart. Is Strictly Ballroom afraid to be sincere for even four minutes? Why shy away from that when it could be so good? It’s a maddening, deeply disappointing mystery.
Strictly Ballroom, please just be a musical. Fran lives in a musical; when Fran – lovely, tremulous Panaretos who really shines in this role – shapes Scott into a defined character, she draws him into a world that is a joy to watch. It would almost seem like a structural choice – out there in Scott’s world, chaos posing as cinema, but in there, with Fran, the freedom to drop the act and sink into classical narrative – but it clearly isn’t, because the dichotomies aren’t doing the show any favors. It is frequently a mess and messy about it; the score in the first act is dissonant, trying, heavily cliched.
Without an overarching sound and score the show becomes disjointed. Scott’s solo number – which seems to serve the narrative function of introducing his real desire to dance his own way – comes fairly late into the first act and without any sense of purpose; Scott dances in mirrors but manages to not express much at all. The song doesn’t aid the plot, but rather sinks a few more minutes in an act that’s already bloated. This number shouldn’t feel unnecessary – it’s through these solo moments that musicals build character, intent, and an audience’s emotional connection – but it fails in this capacity, making it insufferable viewing.
The first act is also ninety minutes long, which is far too long, but it does receive a welcome breath of life towards the end, when Scott follows Fran home and discovers that Federation dance is actually a bit stupid to people outside that world; when Fran’s family celebrates their heart and their passion and their flamenco, the story has remembered itself.
In the second act, the musical numbers become more like musical theatre numbers and the show benefits enormously; scenes begin to have boundaries underscored by emotional, musical cues. “Barry Fife’s Nightmare” is a wonderful piece of music theatre (it would be a great second-act opener), and “Leap of Faith” – a flamenco, guitar-driven explosion of love and finding a sense of self – feels like a completely organic and fresh demonstration of bonding and comfort. It’s a unique sound, both Australian and multicultural; something about it captures the heart of the film and holds it aloft. Natalie Gamsu and Fernando Mira as Fran’s grandparents are beacons on that stage; their voices soar, their smiles feel a little more real.
“Love is in the Air” becomes a sweet interlude; and the finale has its heart in the right place, though the pacing is bad – the audience races ahead of the characters – and even John “Cha-Cha” O’Connell’s choreography, in particularly a dance floor competition scene, finally lands as a sequence of deft, ballroom beauty. This show ends on a high, and it’s lucky that it does.
Strictly Ballroom the Musical could be a beautifully offbeat love story: between Scott and Fran, between Scott and dance, between dance sport and dance as culture, between bodies and expression, between families. Instead, it is a high-glitz explosion of colour, light, and sparkles. And that’s all.