Wednesday 26th April 2023 at York Grand Theatre and Opera House.
Based on the celebrated 1992 Baz Luhrmann film and promising to lift the curtain on the competitive ballroom scene, this show offers comic glimpses of backstage squabbles, underhanded dealings and blossoming love alongside some impressive dance numbers.
The story? Scott Hastings and partner are popular faces on the Australian ballroom scene. That is until Hastings gets big ideas about dancing his way away from textbook moves and replacing his seasoned partner with an amusingly awkward newbie – leaving the ballroom competitors horrified, naturally. Can a pair of passionate dancers ever overcome such loud protestations?
Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce’s book offers an array of fleeting and flamboyant characters with histrionics as a primary source of comedy. Mostly this lands well, with Craig Revel Horwood directing with an eye for spotlighting such drama comically, but as the script leans in for every possible diva strop and peacock-like territorial display, it does lack a sense of development and variety beyond the relationship of the central characters.
Revel Horwood also co-choreographs along with Jason Gilkison to provide some great visual spectacle and impressive ensemble numbers. The show boasts a very talented company, with stand-outs within the ensemble of dancers including Agnes Pure, Edwin Ray and Danielle Cato. Each en-masse entrance provides opportunities to parade Mark Walters’ colourful costume designs in full glory, and the cast dance up a storm as if dancing is simply their default means of movement in life. If seeing great dancers perform live and in person and not just on the telly is the draw, then I don’t think those audiences will be too disappointed. It’s worth noting that Gilkison happens to be the creative director for Strictly Come Dancing, and it certainly shows.
Kevin Clifton’s Scott Hastings and Faye Brooks’ Fran make a charming pairing – both as dance partners and as love interests. Both navigate the blend of comedy, angst and romance nicely and also extend their skilful physicality to foolery as smoothly as their more precisely choreographed moments. Supporting characters are very boldly drawn. Nikki Belsher’s Shirley Hastings is a strong and entertaining presence, having seemingly attended the Mama Rose Academy and Mark Sangster’s Doug Hastings takes defeated to a whole new level. Gary Davis’ deeply unpleasant Barry Fife also takes us to another level: the very bottom of the slimiest gutter. It is Karen Mann’s wonderfully warm but disappointingly peripheral Abuela who provides the real heart of this show though, providing reassurance and light-heartedness where others gnash teeth and try to lay claims on poor Scott and Fran.
For me, frustration lies with the music of this show. While the choreography mostly stands firm, it has to be said that the music is a little more unsteady on its feet (Orchestrator and musical supervisor: Stuart Morley; Original score and arrangements: Elliot Wheeler). The inclusion of well-known songs such as “Time After Time”, “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” (performed beautifully en español no less) and “Love is in the Air” lands well within the piece, but other musical choices feel far less engaging and at times this is down to inaudible lyrics. The cast are capable of a great wall of sound, but sometimes lyrics are secondary to volume here – for some, that won’t matter though, if it’s all about the dance…
Positioning itself as a fun-filled evening of backstage snooping on the ballroom dancing scene, this show embraces the camp and eccentric while also delivering on a gentle romance. Admittedly, I don’t know the original film from Luhrmann and Pearce, but even if the story follows a predictable trajectory and could do with a bit of trimming and sharpening in this version of the tale, the entertainment value of the dance numbers and associated spectacle should certainly satisfy fans of dance.
Strictly Ballroom The Musical is at York Grand Theatre and Opera House until April 29th 2023 and then continues to tour until July 15th 2023 – you can find more information and tickets here.
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