By: Angela Guardiani
Baz Luhrmann is one of those directors whose aesthetic is immediately recognizable – and not to everyone's taste. Personally, I love the technicolour glossiness of a Luhrmann film. I love the staginess taken to extravagant lengths, the lush visuals and golden light, the swooning romance and sneering villians. Clothes are never just clothes, but costumes. Places have a feeling of unreality about them. In Luhrmann's world, everything is fake, but that doesn't mean it's not true. He makes movies where we know everything is artificial. Everything has been designed, chosen with care, for the single purpose of showing us an emotional truth. In other words, the more unreal it seems, the more it resonates in the heart.
When it comes to competitive ballroom dancing, think of the athletically choreographed steps, the illusion netting, the million-watt smiles. A good dancer never lets the audience see her bleeding feet or his bad knees. Yet the grace and fluidity they bring to the stage is breathtaking. Their bodies tell a story and become part of the theatrical experience. In fact, the only thing I can think of that's more stagy than competitive dance is a musical. So the creation of a stage musical using Baz Luhrmann's 1992 film Strictly Ballroom as source material is a pretty natural progression. In fact, Luhrmann adapted the movie from his own stage play – a rare example of a story going from stage to screen to stage again. The show has its North American premiere run right now in Toronto.
If you're not familiar with the film, it's a spin on the classic follow-your-heart/a-star-is-born narrative. Australian Scott Hastings is the child of two retired ballroom dancers, the aggressively cheerful Shirley and the benign but withdrawn Doug. Scott has been groomed all his life to become a champion and he has the talent and charisma to make it happen. But Scott rebels against the tightly prescribed rules of competitive dance and introduces his own steps, a move that forces his partner to abandon him and makes him something of an outcast in the dance community. The only partner who will dance with him his way is Fran, a mousy beginner who nevertheless shows an affinity for Spanish dance. As Scott and Fran learn from each other, Scott also learns something about love, secrets, and following one's heart.
The musical follows the film closely, down to the costumes, hair, and sets. It's gorgeous to look at – the lighting design mimics the sun-drenched Australian billboards and dim, hazy dance floors that were a visual hallmark of the film. The new music is fine but mostly forgettable - the standout numbers are the older pop songs that just seem so right in their new context, like Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time"' or Doris Day's "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps". Gemma Sutton as Fran is the most accomplished singer in the show, with an unusually smoky, seductive voice. But of course, the star of the show is the dancing. Sam Lips as Scott is an astounding dancer – athletic, powerful, fluid, graceful. You can see the progression the character makes from a precise but bland cookie-cutter dancer to an artist in perfect balance between discipline and inspiration.
I particularly liked the sequences where Lips danced in formation with a group of other male dancers in a dizzying, dream-like set of haze and mirrors. There's also a showstopping number at the end of the first act where we meet Fran's father Rico. Played by professional flamenco dancer Fernando Mira, Rico demonstrates real paso doble, as opposed to the anemic ballroom version. It's a slow build to a thundering climax that reminds you of how exciting live theatre can be.
I do have a some issues with the show – the Australian accents that are almost universally mangled by the majority British/American cast, the totally unnecessary but seemingly obligatory bit of audience participation at the top of the second act, the frivolous number shoehorned in to give the child actors their moment – but overall, Strictly Ballroom manages to carry away most criticism in a froth of feathery skirts and an ocean of sequins. It's a lovely bit of escapism that nevertheless has a relatable story of finding one's own way in the world. And the dancing – the dancing may well have you rolling up your carpets to practice that rhumba or swing you learned in high school.
Baz Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom The Musical plays until June 25 at the Princess of Wales Theatre. Tickets are $55 - $160 and are available at mirvish.com.