Baz Luhrmann's film-turned-stage-musical may be a little out of step, but it hits some high notes.By Peter Craven.
Strictly Ballroom a dream half realised
It’s hard to know what to say about Baz Luhrmann. There are times – not infrequent times – when he seems like a maddening vulgarian of the campest kind, but he has a mighty talent that has scarcely been rivalled since the heyday of Vincente Minnelli. Luhrmann can make the screen work like the theatre. And, besides, there is Strictly Ballroom.
When the film Strictly Ballroom appeared in 1992, a distinguished writer said to me that she thought it was marvellous, that it was supremely moving in the manner of Wagner’s The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. She suggested it was one of the great works about creating art, so I went off to see it wondering if and how this dance film was going to rival 8½ and Hamlet and Ulysses.
Well, it didn’t. It was moving, though not supremely. But if the film Strictly Ballroom didn’t exactly give The Red Shoes or An American in Paris a run for their money, it was nevertheless a beautiful piece of movie storytelling and it did capture the magic and the mystery of the dance, it did unfold frame by frame as a revelation that showed how artifice could fill a screen with the fire of drama.
Luhrmann’s a genius at that borderline between theatre and cinema and he can effect a transfiguration of either one in terms of the capability of the other. So it was no surprise when at the height of his powers, having made a big Australian film of The Great Gatsby, the mighty black diamond of the American Dream, he should turn back to Ballroom and try to turn it into that ever-enriching mine, a stage musical.
The result is a mixed bag. It would be wrong to say that it’s satisfactory or works, but it does have a swag of moments that demonstrate, pretty lustrously, that no one in this country can use the stage with the mastery of Luhrmann, at least for a succession of shining moments.
The trouble with Strictly Ballroom is the book. It never achieves the emotional clarity of outline of its original, nominally 1980s prototype with its boy–girl coupling – Paul Mercurio and Tara Morice – and the enriched, transcending occasion of their coming together: the glory of those improvised, stylised steps that is the fullest expression of what the body can do when it surrenders to the idea of form. The musical has a very pretty male lead, Scott (Thomas Lacey), who can dance and gleam, and a female lead, Fran (Phoebe Panaretos), who is handsome and can sing a lot and dance a bit. And they both shuffle through their acting likeably enough.
The difficulty comes with the great chorus of older adults, most of whom, including distinguished actors and singers such as Robert Grubb as the dance federation president, Heather Mitchell as Scott’s mother, Drew Forsythe as his father, and Bob Baines as some moonfaced monstrosity of the dance floor, give the kind of performances (clearly encouraged by their master Luhrmann) where broad-gestured buffoonery turns into a cartoon of a cartoon.
None of which is to diminish the overall energy of the stage movement or the bubble and burble of a production that is constantly arresting whether you approve of it or not. But Strictly Ballroom remains an odd show because of the constant prospect of delight that is fulfilled, then dashed, then realised again.
There’s a terrific sequence with the tight black-trousered, white-singleted hero dancing in front of a set of faceted mirrors. There’s another great moment at the towering top of the stage where the leads fiddle through their steps in the vicinity of a Hills Hoist clothesline with a sequined bra, some lairy underpants and pyjamas. And there’s a magnificent scene at the back of Fran’s family’s milk bar, where Grandma and Papa (Natalie Gamsu and Fernando Mira) show what the Hispanics know about dance. Gamsu sings and moves magnificently and Mira shows the flaming power and rigour of the flamenco tradition. It’s in this scene, more than anywhere else, that you get that uncanny sense, clearly close to Luhrmann’s heart, of art – and a fortiori the art of the dance – as the magic that transforms the world. At one point they sing about rhythm and dance to “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen and – although they’re not exactly in time to it – there is an irresistible theatricality to the scene that also quivers with life through every step of its stylisation.
The presence of Bizet is, of course, an indication (if a rather grand one) of the jukebox aspect of Strictly Ballroom, where the score – which sounds more like an eclectic collection of songs with little foreshadowing or reprising – nevertheless makes great play of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after Time” and John Paul Young’s “Love Is in the Air”. There is a range of new songs, by people including Eddie Perfect, that are skilled enough, but Elliott Wheeler doesn’t succeed in turning them into a dramatically coherent score. The Hispanic element in this is a potential goldmine for Luhrmann and Global Creatures, but the music needs to move the story along more than it does.
The show would have to be tightened for New York or the West End. And the storyline – the girl, the boy, the epiphany of dancing your way through the steps to the stars – would need a much smoother, more humanly scaled exposition. I suspect Strictly Ballroom needs a book adaptation by an independent playwright or scriptwriter and that Luhrmann and his long-time script collaborator Craig Pearce, who have done the job themselves, have been tricked into free associating around a story that is too familiar to them.
The film played very effectively on the centrality of dance to ordinary traditional Aussie folk where the art of the ballroom was an essential grace to people whose blood was as red and bullish as the brown land could make it. Actors such as the late Bill Hunter as president Barry Fife, or Barry Otto as Scott’s father had a recognisable reality, whereas here the dancing oldies function like a travelling float of screaming old thesps. And the fact that they tend to operate like a chorus doesn’t help either.
That said, Strictly Ballroom is something. It comes from the belly of a master and for all its moments of fumbling and fuzziness, it does have its flashes of fire.
It’s not a coherent or tight musical nor is it – yet – anything like a great one. But it may run and run because, in the midst of Catherine Martin’s alternately gorgeous and lurid costumes and Luhrmann’s zigzags between inspiration and self-parody, there’s a raw infatuated theatrical power here as old and as Aussie, as populist and as stagestruck as a travelling circus. It will stay with you like a smell or a dream.
Old Fitz Theatre, Sydney, until March 6
VISUAL ART Bimblebox Art Exhibition
Flinders University City Gallery, Adelaide, until February 8
OPERA Der Freischütz
The Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne, until February 14
DANCE Shen Yun
Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, February 3-4
VISUAL ART Aztecs
Australian Museum, Sydney, until February 1
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 31, 2015 as "A dream half realised". Subscribe here.