Bursting with vibrant colour and spectacular dance, CLOC Musical Theatre’s new production of Strictly Ballroom the Musicalis a visual feast.
Top marks to CLOC Musical Theatre for putting their impressive resources into staging another Australian musical. The benefit, in return, is the allure of the title, which is now know not just from the beloved 1992 movie but also from the extended 2015 Melbourne run of Strictly Ballroom the Musical.
While the musical was judiciously edited after its initial 2014 Sydney season, the surprise here is that the book and score have received further significant rewrites. Gone are the music and lyrics of Elliott Wheeler and the lyrics of book writers Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce (snappy flashback number “The Looks, The Charm” being the sole holdover). In their place, Eddie Perfect’s contribution has increased from two numbers to eleven, bringing this version closer to a cohesive score.
The revised book, by British playwright Terry Johnson, retains the breathless inner mythology of Luhrmann’s original fable and recrystallises the storytelling in a way that is more suited to the stage. The arch, biting tone of the film is still softened to a gentler form of camp theatrics, but the riot of colour and movement is what we have come here to see.
Director Craig Wiltshire complements the streamlined book with clearly drawn characters and easy to follow downstage action. Energy is so high that it is almost unimaginable that the cast members also work day jobs.
In the best Broadway tradition, Wiltshire performs double duty as choreographer. Blessed with a gifted cast, Wiltshire has been able to stage a mind-boggling array of dance, keeping the cast in almost constant motion. The ballroom competition scenes, in particular, feature so much dance performed so well that it is basically impossible to decide where to look. In an uncharacteristic piece of miscommunication, Wiltshire’s scene change choreography is mostly performed in the near dark; this may very well be remedied as the season progresses.
Experienced musician Malcolm Fawcett makes an auspicious debut as a musical director for CLOC. Performing Simon Hale’s new orchestrations, Fawcett leads a band with more players than that of the original Australian production, and the music consequently sounds superb. Given that focus must have been placed on dance in rehearsals (and perhaps even auditions), it is testament to Fawcett’s exceptional work with vocal preparation that the singing sounds as strong as it does, with clear diction and sweetly blended harmonies.
Wearing a third hat in the production team, Wiltshire also contributes the splendid set design. The somewhat ungainly thrust stage of the National Theatre has bested some other designers, but Wiltshire makes great use of the space to create a vast cohesive performance area. The general concept for the sets may be based on the original Australian production, but it remains an impressive feat to see the sets constructed and operated so professionally by the mighty CLOC team.
Speaking of mighty CLOC teams, there has clearly been a veritable army of sewers on hand to bring the incredible creations of costume designer Victoria Horne to life. Long-term audience members will be well aware that Horne does not mind a sequin, so Strictly Ballroomreally places her firmly in her element. The truly dazzling costumes features an abundance of sequins, feathers, ruffles, beads, fringes and more, all constructed to the highest standard with characteristic panache along with a healthy serving of wit.
With such spectacular attire on display it is difficult to choose highlights, but a clear fashion favourite seems to have been Shirley Hastings, who sports a knockout array of gowns and daywear. The ballroom judges are outfitted as glamorously as the dancers, and enjoy just as many changes. The entire company contrasts the sparkle and glitz when they switch to dark, earthy tones for the Spanish backyard scene, which remains the heart of the show.
Further enhancing the level of glossy glamour, David Wisken contributes wig and make-up design that are delectably over the top. Ken Railing’s tiger-toned hairdo is a perfect touch, and all of the flashback wigs are wonderfully outrageous.
Dylan Henry captures the boyish innocence and unflappable confidence of rebel dancer Scott Hastings. Clearly having a background that is more ballet than ballroom, Henry delivers aerial moves with flair and polish.
Kristen Mihalos gives a charming performance as ugly duckling Fran, impressing with both her talent for dance and the strength of her gorgeous singing voice. With a petite face that seems to consist solely of a pair of saucer-like eyes, Mihalos is as endearing as she is accomplished.
Elizabeth Garnsworthy captures the shrill desperation of driven stage mother and dance instructor Shirley Hastings. Robert Harsley breaks hearts as downtrodden dad Doug Hastings.
Lee Threadgold is luxury casting as Barry Fife, complementing his comic performance with that powerful singing voice. Likewise Elizabeth Matjacic delivers quality vocals as part of a warm characterisation of Fran’s feisty Abuela.
Melanie Ott captures the self-centred mania of Tina Sparkle to great comic effect. Lauren Edwards crackles with charisma as self-serving dancer Liz Holt. Thomas O’Reilly is lovably dorky as Wayne Burns.
At this performance, adorable starlets Charlotte Barnard (Kylie) and Isaac Pearson (Luke) left the audience wanting more of their precocious talent.
A show to sit back and enjoy, Strictly Ballroom the Musical is in secure hands with the high production values and terrific cast that are trademarks of CLOC musical theatre.
Strictly Ballroom plays at National Theatre, Melbourne until 26 May 2018.
Footnote: it is interesting to note that both the new book by Terry Johnson and the new songs by Eddie Perfect were jettisoned for the West End production, which opened a mere two weeks ago. Apparently, a multitude of pop songs have been added, along with the radical idea of having one male narrator-type character sing every song. Fingers crossed that the season will last until January so that Man in Chair can check it out in person.
Photos: Ben Fon