Monday, October 5, 2015

STRICTLY BALLROOM - THE MUSICAL


Presented by Global Creatures and Bazmark  
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Designer: Catherine Martin
Choreographer: John O’Connell
Musical Supervisor: Max Lambert
Musical Director: Daniel Edmonds
Lighting designer: Hugh Vanstone
Sound Design: Peter Grubb

QPAC Brisbane until October 17

Performance September 23rd reviewed by Bill Stephens

With a few notable exceptions, Australian musicals rarely have a long shelf life. Most productions open cold, without the luxury of expensive development workshops or out-of-town try-outs to finesse and smooth away wrinkles and adjust performances. Even when preview audience response is encouraging, negative critical reaction can often kill off a show before it has had time to find its audience, or for the audience to find it. “Eureka” in Melbourne, and “An Officer and a Gentleman” in Sydney, come to mind as just two examples of Australian productions which suffered this fate.

Among the notable exceptions however is the Baz Luhmann extravaganza, "Strictly Ballroom – The Musical" which opened in a blaze of publicity, with an impressive production team, and an even more impressive budget.

 “Strictly Ballroom” had its genesis in 1984 when Luhmann devised, directed and acted in a small show for his fellow NIDA students. It was set in the world of ballroom dancing, in which Luhmann himself had been a participant, with costumes by Catherine Martin who was later to become his wife.

NIDA was impressed enough with the show to sponsor it in the Czechoslovakian World Youth Drama Festival in 1986. It won awards for Best Production, Best Direction and earned 30-minute standing ovation.

In 1988, “Strictly Ballroom” was expanded for a successful season at the Wharf Studio in Sydney, where it was seen by record company executive, Ted Albert. Albert was so enthusiastic about the show that he became instrumental in obtaining finance for a film version.

With Canberran, Andrew Pike, head of the independent distribution company, Ronin Films on board, the film “Strictly Ballroom” had its world premiere in May 1992 at the Cannes Film Festival where it won the prestigious Prix De Jeunesse. After its Australian premiere at the Melbourne Film Festival, “Strictly Ballroom” was released nationally in Australia in August 1992, winning 8 AFI Awards, and running in cinemas for over a year.

The film went on to win awards all over the world, and became an essential inclusion in DVD collections, meanwhile Luhrmann and Martin went on to established themselves as a formidable team devising a string of international, award-winning international stage and film productions notable for their eye-popping originality and extravagant production values, among them “La Boheme”, “Moulin Rouge” and “The Great Gatsby”.

In 2011 Luhrmann announced that his company, Bazmark, intended to produce a lavish stage version of the film. Exciting news particularly as it had been some time since there had been a Baz Luhmann stage show. His international film-making career had taken off, and the idea that he would revisit the work that had provided him with his first success, both on stage and on film, was intriguing.

However it was not until April 2014 that Luhrmann’s vision was revealed when “Strictly Ballroom – The Musical” received its world premiere in the Lyric Theatre in Sydney.

Preceded by a storm of publicity, the show received a decidedly mixed critical reception. Catherine Martin's costume designs were widely praised but not her set designs. Baz Luhmann's idiosyncratic direction, together with the “curate’s egg" score by a gaggle of composers, including Luhrmann himself, also worried some critics. Others, perhaps expecting a duplication of the much admired film, complained that the
charm of the film had been swamped by the lavish production. 
 
The auditorium with coloured seating
Personally, I loved the sheer audacity, exuberance and spectacle of the show, starting from the moment of entering the theatre to discover that it had been transformed. All the seats had been covered with multi-coloured Lurex fabric to divide the theatre into four separate sections. Huge posters decorated the walls, so that the theatre resembled a suburban dance hall.

I loved the masses of glittering red curtains, (shades of “Moulin Rouge”), and when the show started, Martin’s brilliant costumes, each an eye-popping riot of spangles, sequins, feathers and tulle which spectacularly filled the stage. Her wonderfully fluid sets were able to be glided around the stage to compliment John O’Connell’s over-the-top choreography. I loved the mirror balls and the dancing couples positioned in each level of theatre balconies, but suspected, correctly as it turned out, that they would disappear after opening night.
 
The finale photographed from the audience perspective 

I loved most of the performances, especially those of Heather Mitchell and Drew Forsythe as Shirley and Doug Hastings. Natalie Gamsu and Fernando Mira were magnetic in the big Act One finale, as was Robert Grubb who managed to find a soul for the larger than life, Barry Fife.


 
Natalie Gamsu, Fernando Mira, Drew Forsythe, Heather Mitchell (back)
Phoebe Panaretos, Thomas Lacey (front)

Newcomers, Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos were impressive in the central roles of Scott Hastings and Fran. Lacey’s dancing was superb, although his acting and singing were less impressive. But the show is all about dancing - Scott Hastings dancing in particular - so it was easy to see why he had been cast.

Panaretos, on the other hand, despite singing beautifully and creating a beguiling character for Fran, was unable to convince that her dancing in the finale would have allowed them to win the competition.

The stylistic variation in the songs, which ranged through operetta, Gilbert and Sullivan and pop songs, was disconcerting. Many of the lyrics commented on the action but were unintelligible due to the frenetic staging. Also disappointing were the heavy-handed attempts at audience participation which may have been alright for a club show, but seemed out of place in a production of this quality.

The long, unfunny set-up for the opening number, in which the audience was split into four teams, colour-coded by their Lurex -covered seats and encouraged to barrack for their allotted couple in the dance competition, proved embarrassing. By the time the competition came around in the second act, the audience had forgotten what they were expected to do. Indeed, the long mad-cap finale was so deliberately chaotic and frenetic, that it was difficult to keep up with what was happening, and the audience never really got to see why Scott and Fran actually won the competition. 

Despite many moments of sheer brilliance in the production, it was obvious that the show needed more focus, particularly in the story-telling which seemed to get lost in the second act. As with the score, there was a feeling that there had been too many cooks involved in its preparation.

Six weeks later I had the opportunity to have a second look at “Strictly Ballroom”. The improvement was remarkable. The actors had by now settled into their roles, pointing up key lines and nailing their laughs. The opening scene had been trimmed and sharpened, the storyline was more focused, and the finale was working much better. Lacey and Panaretos were both engaging the audience with real star performances, and there were moments in the show which were so good they actually brought tears to my eyes.

By this time rumours were circulating that the producers intended to take advantage of the transfer of the show from Sydney to Melbourne in January 2015, to make more extensive changes. One wondered what they might be, and worried that the baby might be thrown out with the bath water.

However, having made whatever refinements were felt necessary before the Melbourne opening, presumably, the show seen by Melbourne and Brisbane audiences was the one Luhrmann had intended and the production was now at its optimum.

My opportunity to see how the show had evolved came during its final leg of its National tour in Brisbane, where I attended a sold-out matinee.
 
The ensemble 

The show still looked a million dollars in the huge QPAC theatre, and the cast were giving it everything they had.

I had expected more changes, but essentially the show has remained pretty much the same…bold, brash, beautiful and hugely entertaining. During its 18 month run, there had only been one cast change among its major principals. Drew Forsythe had relinquished his role as Doug Hastings during the Melbourne run, so that he could honour a prior commitment to tour with the Wharf Revue. The role had been taken over by Darren Gilshenan.

Inevitably, there were a few changes among the ensemble, but, on a parochial note, I was delighted to see two former Canberrans still with the show…. Damien Birmingham doing a fine job as Merv, and Daniel Edmonds confidently conducting the excellent pit band resplendent with purple glitter in his hair.

Only one musical number “Tina is Coming/Witches Song” had been dropped, but some others had been shortened, and re-arranged, improving the pace of the show,and the scene transitions remain magical.

The colourful lurex seat coverings remain, as do the posters, even though the original concept of having the show take place during the  dance contest with the audience barracking for their favorite dancers, has now been muted and the audience participation has thankfully been reduced to just two sequences. One..A nicely staged sequence in which two audience members are maneuvered around the stage by the colorfully costumed ensemble to the song “Beautiful When You Dance”…. The other follows the finale, when audience members are encouraged/inveigled on to the stage to dance with the cast. For me both sequences damage the integrity of the show...and we still don't get to see why Fran and Scott win the competition. We know from the beginning of the show that they are going to win it, but we don't actually see them beat their competitors.... just crowned the winners.

However “Strictly Ballroom” is very much Baz Luhrmann’s concept and Baz Luhrmann’s show. As we have come to expect from Luhrmann, it remains audacious, visually gorgeous and controversial. But he has stayed true to his vision of the show and that is to be applauded. One hopes that audiences around the world will have the opportunity to experience this production, which is one Australian musical which won’t just fade away. Indeed, when the amateur rights eventually become available, I’ve no doubt there will be many more productions of “Strictly Ballroom” which will delight and move audiences for years to come.

 
Baz Luhrmann



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