Strictly Ballroom began when NIDA student Baz Luhrmann led a student-devised piece in 1984. This production went on to play at the Czechoslovakian World Youth Drama Festival in 1986 and, with new designer Catherine Martin, was performed in Brisbane and Sydney in 1988 by the new Six Years Old company, directed by Luhrmann. This led to the film that opened in Cannes in 1992, won a pool room of prestigious film prizes and ran for over a year in Australian cinemas. The musical version opened in Sydney in 2014 and this time the critical acclaim was silent. So it was tightened up before it opened in Melbourne.
I saw the 1988 version in Sydney. I loved this small show and the story of Scott and Fran going against the rules of ballroom dancing to be their true selves. Made with heart and guts, it celebrated an authentic Australian suburban voice and told a story that, despite its inevitable ending, twisted and turned like the dancing it celebrated. It was also made with a budget that wouldn’t buy the new seat covers of the musical.
The film took the heart and guts of the play, but let it be bigger and placed it firmly in Sydney so that the famous Coke billboard in Kings Cross is mostly known for being in Strictly Ballroom, and placed it so deeply in the hearts of Australians that it remains one of our most-loved films.
And it let Lurhmann and Martin go on to make more films that are very loved, and equally not loved.
The nostalgic passion for this little-film-that-did will sell tickets to the new stage version, which is, as much as it can be, the film on stage.
From the Coke sign to the dialogue and from the colour of the gowns to Scott’s famous knee slide across the floor, this time carried on the shoulders of dancers, everything on the stage is recognisable and referential. Except there’s more of it.
There’s no new story or extended characters, but there’s more music including”Time After Time”, from the film; “Perhaps, perhaps”, made famous by Doris Day; and the Melbourne addition of a couple songs by satirical wonder Eddie Perfect. Unlike the cultural mish-mash of music that works in Lurhmann’s films, on a musical stage, the lack of musical consistency distracts from the story. As characters stop to sing, the story stops and re-starts, losing tension and bringing it into the world of the original music. And that’s before the new Baz lyrics; a rhyme is not a lyric. (If only Eddie had been brought in on day one.)
The apparent fear of not being the film also leaves little room for the performers (who are some of our best) to bring themselves to the characters and make them their own. A couple overcome this, but most have the consistent control that ensures that no one will notice when an understudy slips in, and most are copies of performances created over 20 years ago.
Being like the film, it’s still set in the 1980s of wacky printed lycra and frizzy hair but it doesn’t comment on the 80s or look at that time from today. The film story is known, so why not add something, twist it or tell a new story circa 2014? Scott and Fran running a dance studio that’s stuck in the 80s and their own kids rebelling?
At its best, this lavish show celebrates the time and ballroom dancing. It’s also at its best when it’s satirising the time and the dance. But the tone jumps around so much that it’s hard to know what we’re meant to be feeling; laughing at them or laughing with them?
Where it can’t help but shine is Catherine Martin’s design. Glorious gaudy and made from enough sequins to cover Mount Kosciuszko, it celebrates the outrageousness of ballroom and turns the sparkle up so high that that any imperfections are lost in the glare.
But sparklier doesn’t mean better. We don’t have to look far – cough, Lion King re-opens in Melbourne very soon – to be reminded that a successful musical based on a film doesn’t have to look anything like the film.
Strictly Ballroom has the kind of pedigree and talent and support that should let it be astonishing. It should be the sort of show that re-defines Australian music theatre and runs for years. And there are moments, like the Spanish dance scene that closes Act 1 (after the Carmen re-write), where the show comes together and brings the audience into its world, but these moments of magic and heart also highlight how dull the rest of it is.
Sadly no amount of sparkle can cover dull. Let’s hope that it keeps changing and is allowed to become the show it should be.