Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martins ‘Strictly Ballroom the Musical’ has been the buzz of curiosity ever since the announcement of it being in development in 2013. To some, ‘Strictly Ballroom the Musical’ may have been a surprise choice for the super couple whose famous trademark films have won award after award. For those of us though who know that ‘Strictly Ballroom’ began with Baz at NIDA back in 1984, the transition really just seemed a natural almost inevitable progression. On stage in front of a live audience is where ‘Strictly’ right fully belongs. I for one had high expectations for this production and really had no doubt that Baz and Catherine would pull off a show worthy of one’s time and dollar. Have they not created films that tickled all your senses? How could they not get it right! Talking to friends and colleagues there seemed to be a little bit of hesitation on whether or not the show would transfer well and be as great as advertised? My question was, will it add up to the competition? The Lion King across the bridge at the Capitol a sell-out show, and would it be strong enough to hold its own over-seas on Broadway and the West End? Seeing this show twice now in its preview state I can with great enthusiasm proclaim that Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin have struck gold again!
When you walk into the newly renovated Sydney Lyric Theatre the vibe is fresh with a sense of giddy excitement in the atmosphere and amongst the eager ticket holders lurking at the doors awaiting to get to their seats. Once inside the auditorium you are greeted with a lot of GLITTERY images and sequinned seat covers. The sounds of ‘wow’ and ‘oh my gods!’ out of the mouth of already it felt won over patrons. Immediately you feel a real connection to what is about to happen on stage.
Whether you like it or not you are involved in this production, in the most fun and interactive way possible. Not long before being seated you are greeted by Mark Owen-Taylor as JJ Silvers who sets the tone putting the audience at ease that this show is to enjoy and have fun! This is one of many things about Strictly that sets it apart from the vast amount of musical theatre I have seen over the years. Baz has thought with all diligence about the audience, it was clear to me that it was vital to him that each and every person felt a part of something magical. Magic is in the air!
Casting for this production is exceptional. Though there were moments when Thomas Lacey who plays leading man Scott Hastings and his leading lady Phoebe Panaretos had a few wobbly moments in their duets their performances were both committed and fearless both launching themselves into their characters physically and emotionally. The cast ensemble all seasoned professionals and it showed, any nerves were used to their benefit. A high energy cast with contagious passion and humour.
Bob Baines as Les Kendall, Drew Forsythe as father Doug Hastings and Robert Grubb as Barry Fife brought a level of performance for me that sealed this show as uniquely Australian with their production numbers that had the audience laughing from here to Timbuktu. Heather Mitchell playing Shirley Hastings gave a performance Kath and Kim would be proud of, her comedic timing and energy was infectious to watch.
Strictly Ballroom is a musical full of familiarity. I found myself wondering if Baz and co-writer Craig Pearce had done the wise thing of taking a few pages from shows who have and continue to have international success. I saw glimpses of ‘Les Miserables’ in a clever comedic revolutionary produced scene addressing Scott and his new dance moves. I felt and witnessed the ethereal twirl and curiosity of Wicked and The Wizard of Oz in flashback scenes. Other musicals that flashed through my mind with soft impressions were Ghost the musical and even tongue in cheek musical Legally Blonde and The Producers. Baz bravely un afraid to have a few moments of silence and acoustic jams ( was ‘Once’ the musical an inspiration too?) a contrast to the mostly camp style it exudes, works completely and is a beautiful choice. Peter Grubb, Elliot Wheeler and Max Lambert came together to collaborate to create the core ingredient to any musical, the music. A stellar achievement that shone with experience, colour and guts, these men should expect shelf room for awards in the future. Original scores and arrangements are all powerful, heart-felt and romantic when necessary. A new musical relies on original scores to be on point. Strictly does not disap(point.)
Catherine Martins costumes and set design proving again to the world why she is number one in creating a palette for the senses that leave you whispering her praises as one after the other colourful sparkling outfits swirl their way onto the proud stage. John “Cha Cha” O’Connells Choreography classic, fun and funny at times giving the cast and the costumes they wore spirit and vibrancy. Hugh Vanstones lighting design reflected his vast experience and mirrored the extravagance presented on stage. A collaboration of professionalism and it glowed in every aspect of the production.
This show is still in its preview period, of course things could tighten up with a few nips and tucks but nothing too serious to be of concern. It has all the right ingredients, by opening night I don’t doubt it will be near perfect.
In conclusion’ Strictly Ballroom’ is like listening to Kath and Kim have a conversation with Lez Patterson whilst watching Cate Blanchett walk down the red carpet. The show might be a lengthy watch in its preview period running currently at 3hrs 15mins including a 20 minute interval. In saying that though I saw very few eyes leave the stage to check their watches.
A world premiere, I urge you get your tickets and be a part of Australian Musical theatre history!
Showing at The Sydney Lyric Theatre 25th March-29th July, opening night 12th April