Imagine the two leading characters in a musical singing less than a verse between them. If that strikes you as odd, it’s precisely what happens in the West End version of Strictly Ballroom The Musical, a show that has undergone several reworkings since its inaugural run in Sydney in 2014. Scott Hastings (Jonny Labey) and Fran (Zizi Strallen) are highly talented and could do well to demonstrate so-called ‘triple threat’ skills if only they were given the opportunity.
Instead, the repertoire of musical numbers, which very nearly take the production into ‘jukebox musical’ territory, are given to Will Young’s Wally Strand to perform. Young, to his credit, does well, even if his Australian accent could do with some improvement. His role also involves explaining, where required, what is about to happen, whilst his character remains detached from the events in question and its characters. It would be akin to the Chorus in ancient tragedy plays, except the Chorus doesn’t maintain a ubiquitous presence. In the end, shows like this are, in part, about bums on seats, and if Will Young pulls the punters in, so be it.
Now, the motion picture ‘Strictly Ballroom’ (1992) pre-dates BBC Television’s ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ (first series 2004), though the change in format from ‘Come Dancing’, which ran from 1950 to 1998, somewhat mirrors an apparent need, demonstrated in the narrative of Strictly Ballroom The Musical, to get with the times and stop being so stuffy and insistent on rules and regulations. The concept of the ‘illegal lift’ remains, or so I’m reliably informed, on BBC’s ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ to this day, with the sort of squabbles that presumably make good television between members of the judging panel as to whether participants should be penalised for incongruent movements, and to what extent.
Barry Fife (Gerard Horan), the head of a ‘federation’ of Australian ballroom dancing, is keen for traditional standards to be maintained, passed down from generation to generation, with no variation in training methods or in dance movements from when they were first established (whenever that was). The costumes (Catherine Martin) are suitably gorgeous – one or two look a little overkill, but this may have been quite deliberate, to accentuate the larger than life personalities of certain characters.
The dancing is polished, and when it wants to be, extraordinary. The first half is relatively heavy on plot. In the second half, the narrative becomes too predictable. An increasingly frantic Fife tries to reassert traditionalism against a proverbial tidal wave of dynamic and passionate movement, and Scott’s mother Shirley (Anna Francolini), the show’s motormouth, is finally told by husband Doug (Stephen Matthews) to ‘shut up’ (something very similar happens in School of Rock The Musical, and elicits a similar overwhelmingly positive response from the audience). Oh, and don’t forget to follow your heart.
A ten-piece orchestra, led by Ben Atkinson, appear on stage throughout. I rather liked a slower than usual rendering of ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’. The stage seems too compact for a show with this much movement, and it seems ironic that a show that preaches that there is more to life than ballroom dancing competitions tries so very hard to be glitzy and glamorous. I didn’t care much for the enforced standing ovation just before curtain call, either.
Perhaps because of the imposition of ballroom rules, the show itself takes a while to get going, but just before the interval, a ‘Paso Doble’ is danced, and thanks to Rico (Fernando Mira) and Abuela (Eve Polycarpou) the show finally becomes riveting and spectacular. But I still say more could have been made of the fine singing voices of Strallen and Polycarpou – and others. The show is very silly and banal in places, but it knows it is. Much of the humour went over my head, but no matter – many in the audience guffawed away repeatedly. For those who enjoy off-piste ballroom dancing, it’s worth seeing. Everyone else can take it or leave it: it’s strictly satisfactory, nothing more and nothing less.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Strictly Ballroom The Musical is the uplifting story that inspired the world to dance and is based on Baz Luhrmann’s multi-award-winning movie Strictly Ballroom. Featuring a company of over 30 led by Will Young (Mrs Henderson Presents, Cabaret) in the new role of Wally Strand, Jonny Labey (Winner ITV’s Dance Dance Dance, Eastenders) as Scott and Zizi Strallen (Mary Poppins) as Fran this new West End musical is a kaleidoscope of colour and fun.
When maverick championship ballroom dancer Scott defies all the rules of competition to follow his heart, he teams up with left-footed partner Fran to win the Pan Pacifics his way. The musical features the film’s classic break-into-song numbers such as Love is in the Air, Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps and Time After Time alongside electrifying new songs.
Drew McOnie (whose dazzling choreography for In The Heights earned him the 2016 Olivier Award) will direct and choreograph. Strictly Ballroom is based on the original Australian musical created by Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin, with a book by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce.
Strictly Ballroom the Musical