Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom the Musical may not be the strongest musical in the world, but it’s a stronger piece of musical theatre, thanks to Drew McOnie’s choreography
“Pam Shortt’s broken both her legs, and I wanna dance with you”
It is fascinating to be able to follow the development of a show, particularly one that has morphed as much as Strictly Ballroom the Musical. I saw it at the West Yorkshire Playhouse the winter before last, where it didn’t quite set my world on fire, so I was intrigued to hear that its arrival in the West End at the Piccadilly would be accompanied by quite the overhaul, still directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie.
The major change to this adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 cult hit movie comes with the introduction of bandleader Wally Strand, played by Will Young, an MC figure and human jukebox who takes on the vast majority of the evening’s singing. And as we skip from Grace Jones to Billy Idol, via Bowie, Whitney and Cyndi, it’s a real pleasure to hear him sing Marius De Vries’ brilliant new arrangements.
But though music is such an intrinsic part of this story of Australian ballroom dancing competitions, and of this production with Ben Atkinson’s accomplished band onstage, there’s no escaping that with Luhrmann and Craig Pearce’s book, this isn’t the strongest of musicals. What it is is a strong piece of musical theatre. McConey may be the director but he’s a choreographer through and through and it is here that Strictly Ballroom shines.
His company are unbelievably on point in every single routine they deliver, and there’s plenty of them. And in the showstopping moments – the Latin flair of the Act 1 finale, the various competitions, the striking nightmare ballet – their physicality and precision is beautiful to behold, not least because of the shocking brights of Catherine Martin’s costumes, from the original film natch.
But there’s no doubting the thinness of the plotting and crucially, the characterisation of leading man Scott Hastings. As a main protagonist, there’s criminally little to him and Jonathan Labey struggles to flesh him out beyond his considerable dance skills. Zizi Strallen has more joy as Fran, using the ugly duckling hook to inject some real personality but among the conga-line of perma-tanned supporting characters, none are able to truly stand out.
Something gets lost in the comedy here, there’s no real heart in the humour, and so it all ends up feeling a little sterile. McOnie does come up with some visually powerful moments though – there’s hints of Follies in the shadowy ballroom figures that haunt the edges of the stages, and in the silhouettes behind the mirrors. And Howard Hudson’s lighting is brilliantly conceived, highlighting some major dance moves most effectively. To misquote another movie, dance ten, everything else five.