Strictly Ballroom in Leeds is an unqualified success in every department. It features the best original cast for a new musical in the U.K. since Matilda. Both principals and ensemble are all triple-threats, and poised, attractive and entrancing ones. Score, book and direction fuse into a seamless outpouring of joy, real humour and brilliantly calibrated romance. Drew McOnie has directed something wonderful, a story for everyone, about honesty, individuality and being true to oneself. And he has choreographed the piece with exuberance and undeniable skill. There is nothing not to love about this very theatrical version of Strictly Ballroom. It will make your heart soar with unbridled happiness. Unless you are brain dead…
Never mind Groundhog Day. Never mind School of Rock. Never mind Kinky Boots. Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom The Musical redefines the concept of a feel-good, crowd pleasing musical with a message.
Combining a sharp and swiftly moving book (Terry Johnson’s adaptation of the work of Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, responsible for the the international hit 1992 film) with original songs and established hits, this production, now playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, has a secret weapon which elevates it to the first tier of musical theatre magic: Drew McOnie.
McOnie, whose contribution to Jesus Christ Superstar helped make that production the success it was in Regent’s Park earlier this year, has presided over something really triumphant here. The energy and commitment of the entire company is faultless. Excellence and bravura showmanship abounds. The directorial vision is startlingly comprehensive, sensitive and undeniably joyous.
This is not a musical where the narrative is the key element. The story is simple, but fairytale like, shimmering and shifting between fantasy and cruel reality. The opening number, When You’re Strictly Ballroom (words and music by the gifted Eddie Perfect) sets up the story and characters perfectly: a world of sequins, feathers, gaudy colours, high expectations, lifts and leaps, rules and rule makers/enforcers, excessive make-up, gay abandon, and snugly costumed synchronised hips, legs and bottoms.
McOnie understands the world in which his characters cha-cha in a comprehensive way. He also understands musicals. Rightly, he discerns that there is nothing quite like Strictly Ballroom The Musical in the repertoire. It’s not satirical, it’s loving. It’s not fantastical, it reflects the truth but with rose-coloured glasses and dance steps. It’s not realistic, but romanticised. It’s not a pantomime or a farce, but a comedy of forced errors. It’s not a juke-box musical, but a musical with its own juke-box. It’s not wholesome family fare, but fare for the whole family not just some of them.
Just as central character Scott Hastings wants to rebel against the strict rules of competitive amateur Ballroom dancing, so Strictly Ballroom The Musical refuses to conform to the “rules” of modern musicals. There are no big television “stars”, no spotlight solo belts for indeterminate “Broadway” voices, and no production numbers for the sake of them. McOnie’s production takes its own path, is sparklingly, refreshingly original and, at the same time, manages to make you feel as though you are watching a much loved story from your life or your loved one’s life. Cosy invention characterises every scene.
Unlike many modern musicals, Strictly Ballroom The Musical does not rub its message into your eyeballs or grind it into your brain. Yes, the motto “a life lived in fear is a life half-lived” gets a thorough workout, but it is the subject of good laughs too. The real messages that underpin the show are more subtle: always be yourself and be true to yourself; don’t give up; love does trump sins of all kinds; children will listen and learn; individuality is to be treasured; dreams can come true.
Dance is integral to the storytelling here, and not of the sort that made Roger de Bris think of Tony Awards. McOnie ensures his female performers have all feminine moves and steps, their entire bodies committed to the physically demanding routines. No jazz hands or box steps characterise the choreography palette. Refreshingly.
For the male performers, McOnie provides choreography of the muscular, extremely manly kind: strong, virile men dancing technically exacting and visually thrilling routines with the energy of trained stallions. It is exhilarating to watch – and the pairings with the female performers are dynamite, each couple working together like proverbial clockwork. It’s a dance dream – and aside from excellent productions of West Side Story and On The Town dancing like this, on this scale and with this passion and commitment, is virtually unseen in modern musical theatre.
But McOnie does not stop with vigorous routines: his dancers have other roles to play. Soutra Gilmour’s characteristically smart set design features an old-fashioned proscenium framing device which provides an inverted U shape structure of ladders and gangways. The sense of performance is ever present.
Scenes play out on the floor below and while they do, in the shadows or muted spotlights in the framing device, fully costumed performers wait and watch, both for their time to dance and the ongoing action. Ballroom dancing is all about being watched and judged by others: McOnie and Gilmour reflect that precisely in the set design. Like all brilliant design work, it seems effortlessly appropriate.
There is a faded glamour about the frame structure which also suits the narrative. Indeed, the sense of every effort being made to brighten life, a theme which pervades the entire production, from the make-up worn by the dancing couples to Shirley Hastings’ rictus grin smile for all seasons, also reflects the world of Ballroom dancing. Life might be dreary but the Ballroom dancer is the salvation, the bringer of happiness.
Tim Lutkin and Hugh Vanstone illuminate the narrative with a spectacularly busy and colourful Lighting design which sparkles as well as any of Catherine Martin’s colourful day wear or glitzy sequinned costumes (all first-rate) for the competition dancing sequences. The vision for the lighting plot is superb, if the execution occasionally falters over tricky cues.
Apart from creating a real sense of the competition floor, Lutkin and Vanstone also set the moods for the dull dance school, the cold Hastings kitchen and outdoor area, the warm and fiery community from where Fran hails, and the pearly mists-of-time sequence where truths about the Hastings family and their links to Messrs Kendall and Fife are (sort of) unveiled. Their masterful use of shadows is also welcome; physical darkness is a useful counterpoint to some of the extravagant surface shenanigans.
Gareth Owens’ sound design is perky and often superb, allowing the correct balance between singers and Ben Atkinson’s hot band, who produce sounds as smoking and exuberant as the dances. But given the quality of the lyrics for songs which will be being heard for the first time, particularly in Perfect’s often very funny verses, more attention needs to be given to clarity of pronunciation. Some work needs to be done by the cast on this, but the sound desk has a critical role to play and it needs refining here.
The score is suitably eclectic, reflecting, once again, the reality of competition Ballroom dancing: routines danced to unexpected tunes. Perfect’s numbers provide the production with a coherence which is welcome. Both Acts get off to a marvellous start thanks to Perfect’s beguiling musicality: When You’re Strictly Ballroom is a pitch-perfect opening number, and it sets a high bar for jollity and exposition; Beautiful When You Dance resets the show after the overwhelming exhilaration of the finale of Act One, and pleases in fresh ways while still tapping to the beat of the show’s key themes.
Perfect’s other numbers are, well, perfect, in terms of plot, character and melodic charm. What Was It All For?, poignant and reflective, comes to define and explain Shirley and Doug Hastings; Dance To Win puts the tricksy Barry Fife into perspective; and Let’s Dance is an unexpected treasure, demonstrating the Children will listen maxim effortlessly and spectacularly.
The only issue with Perfect’s contribution is that it is not greater: the material he provides make you wish for a “Its for this” moment for the Hastings family, a musical moment of acceptance and absolution. An 11 o’clock number to top Let’s Dance, the one he has already provided.
Other major musical moments, which excite instantly and hold your attention long after the curtain has fallen, are plentiful: Shirley’s fixed smile routine to Happy Feet; the bizarrely amusing flashback sequence built around The Looks, The Charm (music by Luhrmann and Elliot Wheeler, lyrics too, with Pearce) and the well known hit, Yesterday’s Hero; the magical power belt duet between Fran and her grandmother, Love Is A Leap Of Faith (music by Sia Furler, Theron Feemster and Isaac Hasson, lyrics by Furler, Perfect and Luhrmann) which rightly stops the show; and the entire sequence at the end of Act One from Doris Day’s hit Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps to the ebullient, thunderous power of iMagnificoi (music and lyrics by David Foster, MoZella and Bernie Herms) which results in thunderous, full-blooded, ecstatic applause.
When you add in the big tunes used in the 1992 movie, Love Is in The Air and Time After Time, and the other new music, including Wheeler’s marvellous Paso Doble stand-off/duel, the result is that Strictly Ballroom The Musical has an intelligent, engaging and accessible score that rewards attention and repetition. Bring on the cast album.
McOnie’s understanding of what makes this show work extends from choreography, through all of the creative input and includes, happily, the performances from the hard-working, super-energised cast. He ensures the pitch is exactly right throughout – slightly garish, slightly camp, totally full of heart. Romantic, polished and eccentric: these are the key notes every performer tunes their performance to hit.
Sam Lips is alarmingly attractive as Scott Hastings. His smouldering matinee idol look, emphasised by the tight fitting outfits he wears with aplomb, establishes him as the flame around which all the coloured moths are drawn. Lips is incredibly warm and charming, but with that touch of arrogance which goes hand in hand with skilled extrovert experts. He nails an aspect of the character which dictates that Scott would never be a backing dancer: his need for individual expression is palpable. Lips manages the broad, flat accent as well, completely removing the natural musicality from his native Colorado tones.
His dancing is extraordinary, quite extraordinary – full of flair, precision and strength. His hips seem to have seductive powers of their own; his lithe, athletic form is capable of acrobatic extremes. Utterly magnetic when moving to a beat, Lips epitomises the grace and beauty Ballroom dancing necessitates – as well as the fierce commitment and ambition. The sequence when Scott finally dons the golden matador jacket is a fabulously memorable theatrical moment. Lips sings with passion and intensity too – he is an outstandingly charismatic and talented leading man.
As Just Fran, Gemma Sutton is equally impressive and she and Lips make a tremendous pairing. Sutton has a spectacular voice, one that can be shaped to many purposes. Her work in Love Is A Leap Of Faith and Beautiful Surprise is particularly memorable.
Her acting is just as impressive. She transforms herself into a nerdish, shy and insecure cleaner at the start of the show and then slowly but surely charts the transformation to luminous dance partner and romantic interest. Sutton never puts a foot wrong, including during the exacting choreography.
As Scott’s uncommunicative and unhappy parents, Tamsin Carroll and Stephen Matthews are flawless – funny, fractious and frightened in equal measure. They play off each other beautifully, in scenes that are ragged with pain and unspoken difficulties. Neither mistakes character for caricature; Shirley and Doug are real. The flashback scene, where each reveal a completely different side to their personality and relationship, is a torrent of surprise and comedic touches.
Both create startling moments of power which are very affecting: the look on Carroll’s face as she watches Scott and Fran finally trip the light fantastic is heart-skewering, a flush of emotions as years of misplaced devotion and unnecessary harshness evaporate in a flood of maternal pride; Matthews’ steely solo hand-clapping which leads to the rug being pulled from under (and over) Barry Fife’s head electrifies the auditorium. Both flesh out by their detailed performances much in their relationship which the book keeps curiously silent.
The youngest Hastings, Kylie (excellent but unidentified in the programme) provides a clear anchor for Scott, helps ground him. So too does his friendship with Liam Marcellino’s Wayne, Scott’s best mate. Marcellino’s devotion to his friend helps make Scott more likeable. Marcellino is personable and a good dancer, but like the rest of the male dancers, he never comes close to the virtuosity Lips displays as Scott and his presence, like theirs, underlines Scott’s unique abilities.
Although very different characters, Scott’s dancing partners also help define Scott. Charlotte Gooch is phenomenal as the amazonian temptress, Tina Sparkles. All legs superb and finely sculpted torso, wild tresses of seductive hair, and Eau de Superstar all around her, Gooch is sexy and tremendous fun. So too is Lauren Stroud’s Liz Holt, a woman for whom obscurity is not an option. These splendid actors embody the need to succeed in the Ballroom game which Scott eschews.
Julius D’Silva is startlingly good as the corrupt President, Barry Fife, who seeks to scuttle Scott’s plans. He uses his excellent voice skillfully, in both dialogue and song – bringing smarmy unpleasantness in spades. Richard Dempsey is hilariously starry eyed as the host with the mostess, his wig and Grand Canyon smile being campalicious trademarks. Gary Watson’s insufferably vain, fake-tanned, bleached-white haired lothario Ken Railings is a comic joy and presents Scott with a clear “that could be me” option, making Scott’s ambitions seem eminently understandable.
On Fran’s side of the family, star power abounds. Eve Polycarpou is really wonderful as Abuela, Fran’s watchful, outspoken and formidable grandmother. She sings up a storm – the power and passion she freely exhibits in Love Is A Leap Of Faith is utterly remarkable – and plays every second with assurance, compassion and devotion. It’s a tour de force.
So too is the astonishingly controlled but supremely passionate turn from Fernando Mira as Rico, Fran’s father who teaches Scott an invaluable lesson about the difference between dancing with your head and dancing with your heart. Vital, stern and impossibly magnetic, Mira proves to be an unstoppable force of nature, one that very nearly steals the show. He focuses stillness as the Ballroomers channel sequins. It’s an amazing counter-point and the Paso Doble sequence with Lips is a true coup de théâtre.
It is difficult to understand why McOnie’s Strictly Ballroom The Musical would not appeal to any and every lover of musical theatre or, indeed, anyone. The pace is excellent, the performances vital and arresting. Rightly, the audience I saw the production with gave the company an enthusiastic and heartfelt ovation.
The inherent Australian sensibility should be no more alienating than specific European or American ones; the accents are excellent across the board and comprehension is not an issue.
Given the success of The Book Of Mormon, excessive and specific vulgarities should not be problematic. Nor should colourful characters and spectacular dancing. This is not a cheap adaptation of the 1992 film, it’s a complex and original re-imagining for the stage, complete with new songs, scenes and unforgettable moments.
Strictly Ballroom The Musical is a complete triumph. Do anything to get to Leeds to see it and pray that the West End will be blessed with a long, enduring season there.