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Does It Live Up to The Massive Hype?“Strictly Ballroom” at the Lyric Theatre, Star City

Reviewed 11 April 2013 by Ron Lee, CSP

The much-heralded and hyped Strictly Ballroom has at last arrived in Sydney.

Baz Luhrmann, renowned for his amazing films, has actually been involved in more theatrical productions than movies. Strictly Ballroom, which Luhrmann wrote with Craig Pearce, was first produced at NIDA in 1984. I suspect that the NIDA production budget was a very, very small fraction of this latest version now showing at Star City’s newly revamped Lyric Theatre.

Nothing has been held back, and I hate to think what the budget was for this - the singers, the dancers, the orchestra, the lavish sets, the incredible costumes, THE SEQUINS! Really, the sequin cost for this show would equate to the GDP of a small country.

Luhrmann has cast a fine mix of veteran and fresh performers, from Drew Forsyth, whom I first saw as Grumio in The Old Tote’s The Taming of The Shrew in the 1970s and he has been in constant work ever since, to the lead, Phoebe Panaretos, who graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts in 2011.

The challenge with this type of production is to find really strong triple threats (performers that can sing, act and dance). Mission accomplished. Panaretos is superb as Fran, the nerdy, ugly duckling that inevitably turns into the beautiful and talented swan; she’s the personification of an all-round performer. Thomas Lacey, as Scott Hastings, is perfectly cast opposite her.

Drew Forsyth manages to extract maximum milage from his character; at times he upstages everyone through his accountant-like, asthmatic, inhaler-puffing Doug Hastings. Heather Mitchell is Shirley, the small town stage mother who is obsessed with her son winning the Australian Dance Federation Pan Pacific Grand Prix. Mitchell excels at everything she does on stage and screen, but I had almost forgotten how good she and Forsyth are at singing and dancing as well as acting.

Even though they superbly play their comic roles, Bob Baines and Robert Grubb add age, experience and gravitas as Les Kendall and Barry Fife and they balance the many young cast members.

Notable younger performers in the cast are Keanu Gonzalez as Rory West (it’s always gratifying to see a martial artist make the transition into the performing arts) and the luscious Nadia Coote as dancing star Tina Sparkle.

With character names like Merv, Wayne, Clarry, Kayleen, Kylie, Liam Lamb and Stephanie Shanks (Lamb and Shanks?), you might think that the ocker is being overplayed like the host of television’s The Block, but Lurhmann has possibly drawn from people in his childhood in country Australia.

In an exceptional cast, the ones that captured my attention the most were Natalie Gamsu as Abuella and Fernando Mira as Rico. Gamsu has a set of pipes in her that remind me of Maria Callas. Mira began his career as a flamenco dancer, which becomes eminently apparent as soon as he strikes the first pose. That man’s talent is sublime. His thunderous dancing contemporaneously exhibits gravity, centredness, absolute certainty and agility. Both performers are powerful and riveting, and it’s worth the price of admission just to see them.

On the production side, you couldn’t find a better choreographer than John O’Connell who basically owns the title these days. Max Lambert, as Musical Supervisor, is a fixture in Australian musical theatre, and deservedly so.

Strictly Ballroom contains elements of other musicals. The rousing anthem, complete with banners and flags, at the start of the second act reminds me of Les Miz. Fran’s backyard scene is reminiscent of Carmen. The twice-said line, “Shall we dance?” is a song from The King and I. The transformation into beautiful swan is My Fair Lady, and I was half expecting Fran to say with a cockney accent, “I washed my face and ‘ands before I come, I did”. Add a helicopter effect, and we could have Miss Saigon as well. There are also parts that evoke images from Romeo and Juliet and Dimboola.

One of the sponsors is Bonds, and for a moment I wondered if they were going to use the name of the show in their underpants advertisements. Boom. Tish!

Strictly Ballroom is a totally enjoyable experience and I trust that they will soon change the anti- climactic ending. It’s fun, has a lot of audience involvement and I highly recommend it. You’re definitely going to leave the theatre feeling good.

Even though Strictly Ballroom is a must-see musical for everyone, I can already see convoys heading down to Star City from Oxford Street.

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