Hollywood Director Baz Luhrmann is renowned for his vibrant and maximalist style of filmmaking. Best known for the red curtain trilogy: Strictly Ballroom (1992), Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001), and more recently the ELVIS biopic (2022), Baz’s work stands out for its creativity and innovative use of post-production editing. Strictly Ballroom was Baz’s feature film directorial debut and it was adapted into a stage musical in 2011, before opening in Sydney in 2014. It enjoyed a London run a few years later and following the pandemic is now touring theatres across the UK.
This week the show is in Canterbury from Monday 13th to Saturday 18th March, bringing the glitz and glamour of the amateur Australian ballroom dance scene to The Marlowe Theatre. On Monday evening I had the opportunity to review Strictly Ballroom on its opening night in Kent and after hearing about the involvement of Strictly choreographer Jason Gilkison and judge Craig Revel Horwood, I was intrigued to see how they would approach a theatrical project.
Based on the 1990s film of the same name, the stage adaptation of Strictly Ballroom follows the plot of the source material, covering Scott Hastings’ journey to the Pan Pacific dance finals. For those of you who don’t know anything about the film, Scott has been dancing since he was six years old; latin and ballroom dancing are in his blood. With a competitive coach and dance teacher mother, Scott’s coaching team are absolutely horrified when he ‘goes rogue’ and starts performing his own, non-federation steps. With three weeks to go until the finals, Scott finds himself without a partner. Fran or ‘Just Fran’ is a beginner and she is inspired by Scott’s creativity. An unlikely partnership, Scott begins to teach Fran to dance with the view that they might be able to ‘try out’ together. The story chronicles Scott’s journey to the competition, through the ups and downs of practice, competitive sport and the rules of the dance world.
Translation from film to stage
Strictly Ballroom is a love it or hate it kind of story, with its memorable characters, fast pace and tell-all perspective on the fictional Australian dance world. The stage show is very similar to the film, focusing on a niche topic. It has recognisable one liners that have transcended generations and the property has a cult following. I do however think that the musical relies on decades old humour and the audience having prior knowledge of the film. The one-liners could be confusing for first timers to Strictly Ballroom without the context of the nineties film, so perhaps the stage adaptation is better suited for die-hard fans. It is also far less family friendly on stage, with many innuendos that wouldn’t be appropriate for a younger audience.
As part of the musical adaptation, songs have been added to the predominantly dance focused show such as ‘Love Is In the Air’ and ‘Perhaps Perhaps’ which are both associated with the film. There is also some new material, which has been penned by Sia, David Foster and Eddie Perfect to name but a few. The principal and supporting cast perform some of the notable and new tracks, but unlike other musicals I think that the show could have relied solely on instrumental backing instead. Strictly Ballroom has such a clear book and narrative, that the vocals aren’t essential to the material.
Unfortunately due to the extensive dance commitment required for the show, it feels as if the singing takes a back foot. My argument about whether Strictly Ballroom should be a musical is largely down to personal taste and I can appreciate that others will warm to the musical changes. If the intensity of dancing were brought down a notch, there would be more space for the performers to breathe and focus on the clarity of vocals. Maisie Smith in particular as Fran provides a very sweet, pop-sounding vocal that unfortunately gets a little overpowered by the pace of the show and volume of the backing. Toning down some of the maximalist style in the musical numbers would have provided her with a greater opportunity to shine and also highlight the vulnerability of the character.
That being said, Jason Gilkison and Craig Revel Horwood’s choreography is a standout of the production for me. Almost every scene has a mesmerising dance routine with fantastic lifts and precise footwork. Kevin Clifton and Maisie Smith have such fantastic chemistry in their partnership work as Scott and Fran, that really comes to a head in the final pasodoble.
Moreover, the pinnacle of the production is the last scene before the end of act one. Fran’s father (Jose Agudo) and grandmother (Karen Mann) suddenly reveal that they are experts at the pasodoble and they provide the young dancers with a masterclass into the craft. Karen Mann and Jose Agudo have an incredible sense of rhythm, leading the company as they learn to go through the motions of dance style. It received the largest cheer of the night and rightly so, with so much dance talent on stage!
Was Strictly Ballroom my cup of tea?
It is definitely an entertaining piece of theatre, but the show lacks the spark of the nineties film for me. As a piece of musical theatre its strength lies in the dancing and in a way, I feel that the production tries to achieve too much within its runtime. The extravagant approach to the production style means that Strictly Ballroom the Musical is a spectacle on stage, but sometimes it is a bit too much and the dialogue and vocal performances are lost as a result. When I compare it to Moulin Rouge! in London, that too is very fully on, but it manages to strike a balance and prevent elements of the show from overpowering each other.
Who is Strictly Ballroom* appropriate for?
The overall joy of the piece makes it a fun choice for a night out with friends and given the dance content, it is bound to appeal to fans of the film and Strictly Come Dancing. As a romantic comedy, it would also be a great choice for a date night with your partner.
I was thrilled to see the theatre so packed on Monday night. If you are looking for an uplifting evening at the theatre, there are a few remaining tickets on The Marlowe Theatre’s website! Performances run until Saturday 18th.
Thanks for reading my blog today.
Love Kat xxxx
*Our tickets for Strictly Ballroom were gifted in exchange for a review of the production.