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Review: Strictly Ballroom musical loses subversion of original film

One of Strictly Ballroom: The Musical’s most charming scenes is the sequence that takes place in the ‘Spanish Quarter’ of Sydney.

Alastair Muir

2.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Strictly Ballroom: The Musical
Written by
Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce
Genre
Musical
Directed by
Drew McOnie
Actors
Sam Lips and Gemma Sutton
Music
Simon Hale
Venue
Princess of Wales Theatre
City
Toronto

Any girl who grew up in the eighties knows that her beauty is inversely proportional to her eyeglass prescription. Pull off those spectacles, let down that ponytail and, according to conventional rom-com wisdom, the hunky male lead will fall desperately in love.

Baz Luhrmann's 1992 cult-classic film Strictly Ballroom starts with this ugly-duckling chestnut and adds a few more tropes; it's a movie about going against convention, despite pressures from family and an unbending establishment, to honour your true self. But Luhrmann's film was an aesthetic curiosity, half mockumentary, half paean to an outrageously tacky, but fascinatingly rigid, form. There was both parody and respect in the way he focused his lens on the cutthroat orthodoxy of sequins, orangey tans and samba steps. The film (Luhrmann's first and the beginning of his Red Curtain Trilogy) is rough around the edges and the subversion came from that fray. Platinum hair and feather headdresses are contrasted with unpolished realism, whether it be in the ugliness of some the depicted personalities or in hanging laundry that flaps on the dancers as they rehearse.

Imagine smoothing out those edges and adding campy, sentimental songs and you get Strictly Ballroom The Musical, which opened Wednesday night at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto. Created by Luhrmann (and adapted by Terry Johnson with music by Simon Hale), the musical is a veritable leap in genre from the movie – something of an amazing feat considering the script is identical in parts and structure, and characters and costumes loyally ape the original. Irony is a delicate business and, despite some nicely configured ensemble dancing and clear, resonant singing, there's none on the Mirvish stage.

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The story follows ballroom-dancing star Scott Hastings (Sam Lips) as he gets himself disqualified from a major competition because he wants to dance from his heart and in his own style. His beautiful and technically immaculate partner (Lauren Stroud) runs off with a bigger star on the Australian dance circuit. So Frumpy Fran (Gemma Sutton), mopping the floor in the shadows, enlists herself as Scott's new dancing mate. Together, the two learn to stand up to their families, honour their pasts and dance with reckless abandon – the story's repeated maxim is "a life lived in fear is a life half-lived." Would you be shocked to hear that Scott and Fran fall in love along the way?

Luhrmann's script actually started out as a student play, and you can imagine the link between a low-budget production that might find its charm through bare-bones cleverness and the gravelly quality of the film. Director/choreographer Drew McOnie's larger (and richer) adaptation, which opened in Australia in 2014 and comes to Toronto via the British production by West Yorkshire Playhouse, does best when it bears its device a little, finding a theatrical language of its own. When Scott auditions a new partner, the women are played by the same actress (Michelle Bishop) who comically stumbles repeatedly on stage in a new wig and costume. When Scott dreams of performing his own work, an ensemble of male dancers surround him in a chorus of muscular choreography, lifting him high in the air in a fantasy that feels intriguingly erotic.

There's also theatrical charm in the sequence that takes place in Sydney's "Spanish Quarter," when Fran's father, Rico (Fernando Mira), and grandmother Abuela (Eve Polycarpou) teach the young couple a paso doble. Mira is formidable and very funny as the proud Spanish patriarch and his intensity as a flamenco dancer is ferocious. While it doesn't make that much sense that rule-breaking self-expression comes via a rigid 19th-century form with firm roots in Indo-European tradition, flamenco sure has presence on stage. The Spanish motif is pleasantly reprised in a final ensemble arrangement in which the scantily dressed Grand Prix competitors twist their wrists with impassioned flair.

Otherwise, the musical is all high legs, big sets and over-the-top, predictable humour. The choreography helps carry narrative momentum, and bears a pleasant sense of flow, but it's ultimately stock moves and unremarkable phrases. As Fran, Sutton has a voice as powerful as it is sweet, but she's left singing characterless original compositions in between Cyndi Lauper's Time After Time and, brace yourself, a full-cast finale to Vanda and Young's Love Is in the Air. For a story whose heart lies in shunning convention and pursuing creative integrity – i.e., not kowtowing to expectations and easy laughs – the production might have done well to heed its own wisdom.

Strictly Ballroom continues in Toronto through June 25 (mirvish.com).

Video: Stars of Strictly Ballroom musical practise Aussie accents (The Canadian Press)
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