Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Strictly Ballroom, Canberra Philharmonic, Erindale Theatre

Baz Luhrmann's "Strictly Ballroom" feels like a natural for a stage musical. Not only is it a well known property, it's got an immediate musical milleu, and a simple but inspiring story with familiar elements like the hero who battles against the establishment, the ugly-duckling girl who blossoms into a beauty, and a big happy ending.

And for a lot of audiences, this seems to have worked quite well. Philo's production played to largely sold out houses with rapturous applause at the end.

I wasn't quite sold. And the reason why lands pretty early in the show - the inciting incident, in fact. As people who've seen the movie may remember, the whole source of the conflict that maintains the 90-odd minutes of screentime (inflated to 2 hours 30 for the musical, minus intermission) is that Scott Hastings (Paul Mecurio in the movie, Joel Hutchings on stage) breaks free from the choreographic conventions, improvising in an inspired but undisciplined manner during competition. The problem here may be fundamental to the show - when musicalised, the role becomes a triple threat requiring acting, singing and dancing at the top level, and ... while Hutchings is a fine singer and a much better actor than Mecurio, the dance steps he does for this moment feel anything but improvised - I'm not sure whether it's his ability or the choreography of Emma Nikolic and Karen Brock, but whatever it is, we never really get a sense that he's a man who comes alive when he dances, whose prime method of expression is his body. and who can release his tension in movements that are electric and inspiring. We get a reasonably well executed steps rather than a moment that needs to thrill for the plot to work.

There are compensations elsewhere in the show. In particular, Ylaria Rogers as Fran gives what should be a familiar arc a fair degree of freshness. She does have the benefit of being allowed to blossom so we can see and participate in her development, and she invests us in both the romantic yearnings she feels and her independence and frustration with the self-centred Scott. As a romantic pair, the two have wonderful chemistry. The act-one finale as Scott finally gets to understand her background and to participate in it fully, "Mangifico", is one of the true highlights of the show (even getting around Tomas Dietz's somewhat bodgy wig).

As a physical production, this is gorgeous stuff, featuring some of Philo's best design work in a while, both set (by Ian Croker) and costumes (by Anna Senior) - although I'll slightly quibble with using ballroom costumes with feathers at the top of the show, simply because it means the feathers tend to stick around onstage til interval. Still, they evoke a true sense of the daggy grandeur of the movie, suitably glittering when required and just as suitably downmarket when the story goes in that direction.

There are issues I have with the construction of the show - 11 different songwriters for the new parts of the score are credited, plus a couple of familiar songs from the movie are used. Almost inevitably, the familiar songs stick better, and the new ones tend to feel generically functional rather than particularly inspired. In addition, the flashback, a highlight of the movie, just isn't as much fun if you substitute out the performers playing the older characters for younger dancers - part of the joy of the moment in the movie was that it was these older performers recreating their glory moments, and that's kinda lost. ONe hangover from the movie is that Shirley Hastings is so heftily unpleasant that her reconcilliation with her husband Doug at the end feels slightly unearned and unredemptive. I'm also not entirely sure why the show has to be set in the early 80s - it doesn't feel particularly inherent to the material. There are some delightfully shameless moments (a cute number for the kids, some auidence rousing moments from host JJ Silvers, and even a meat raffle - which, again, feels slightly weird when after establishing repeatedly that the show's set in 1985, the money's going to the 2018 Vikings junior rugby team - I've heard of forward planning but that's ridiculous).

The ensemble roles feel nicely filled and the music and movement is generally pretty strong. There's some very smooth physical staging - this is rarely a show that stands still very long, and it's a tribute to the production team that it runs so smoothly.

But... like I said, there's a little bit of a hole in the middle which leaves the entire edifice feeling awkwardly hollow.

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