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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Strictly Ballroom: The Musical

That paragon of multiculturalism, suburban sparkle and following your dream makes a glittering transition to the stage.
By Rima Sabina Aouf
February 10, 2014
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By Rima Sabina Aouf
February 10, 2014
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I want to dance with you. I want to dance with you your way at the Pan Pacifics. Is there an Australian alive in the '90s who doesn't know the meaning of those immortal words? That paragon of multiculturalism, suburban sparkle and following your dream, Strictly Ballroom, not only launched the career of writer-director Baz Luhrmann but also implanted itself in our national consciousness as few films have. Now the team behind the movie have brought it to the stage as Strictly Ballroom: The Musical, and the big surprise? It's actually pretty damn good.

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos play Scott and Fran, the conflicted star of the amateur ballroom circuit and the newbie dancer who's the one vote of confidence in his choosing to dance 'his own steps' not approved by the surreally dictatorial Australian Dancing Federation. Scott may have the moves but he hasn't quite found the fire in his heart and the rhythm it connects to. It's something he's set to learn from Fran's Spanish family and their powerful ways with the paso doble, a style of dance modelled on the bullfight.

Lacey and Panaretos are hugely likeable. He has a heart-melting popera voice, while she's simply hilarious, and they're backed up by a characterful supporting cast. Costumes and sets by the legendary Catherine Martin steal a lot of the spotlight — they're both larger than life and stunningly detailed. But the most impressive element of the show is how the pageantry combines with clever, inventive staging.

In a rare outing directing for theatre, Luhrmann shows why he's the superstar he is, crafting mesmerising scene transitions and hyperactive overlaps as sets spin in and out of place. Internal struggles find beautifully stagey expression when a downhearted Scott is overwhelmed by looming dance studio mirrors. Best of all is the 'Time After Time' sequence, as Fran and Scott practise on the roof, complete with Coke sign backdrop. It's a mesmerising montage of huge scale, quietly underscored by a lonely dance from Scott's isolated father, Doug (Drew Forsythe).

A slight letdown is the score. Hits from the movie ('Time After Time' plus 'Love Is in the Air', 'Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps' and the waltz 'The Blue Danube') are, of course, hits here too, while a rendition of the 'Habanera' from Bizet's Carmen gives a rousing familiarity to the paso doble. But of the original songs, only 'Dance to Win' — written by Eddie Perfect for the ignoble dancing federation president Barry Fife (Robert Grubb) — is memorable. That said, it is highly memorable, with a Russian flavour and bawdy, unexpected lyrics. That cheek lacks in the other numbers, by various composers, which melt into a samey singsong.

The charms of Strictly Ballroom the Musical, however, win out in the end. It's high gaudiness done with total style. I went in cynical but I came out a convert. My hardness may have finally withered from the audience participation elements — so cheesy but so good (nothing to strike fear into the heart of front-row ticketholders, not to worry).

The extent to which the audience was on board was evident in the climax of the show, that famous moment when Doug's slow clap pierces the silence of the power-cut Pan-Pacifics. On this evening, the audience was applauding madly long before Forsythe could make a sound, and although he was eventually able to corral us into clapping in time with him, it does undercut the emotional climax of the story, and there's nothing to be done to prevent it. The hope is that you'll find the feeling of collective fun an acceptable substitute. I did.

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