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Strictly Ballroom the Musical

by Julie Houghton

Is music theatre of interest to Classic Melbourne? We believe it is, as a genre that gives work to classically trained musicians and pleasure to many audiences. Julie Houghton recently attended a preview of one that’s sure to be popular, as she explains …

Christmas is over and with many people still on holidays ‘tis the perfect time to indulge in a classic Wednesday matinee at the theatre. That’s the thinking that found me at Her Majesty’s Theatre for the first preview of the musical Strictly Ballroom. Having loved the movie, I wondered whether I would be sadly disappointed or glad that I took the plunge and bought a ticket.

I’m glad to say that it was a great afternoon in a fairly packed theatre – the combination of school holidays, grey weather and the afternoon timeslot meant the place was full of senior citizens, joyful families and a sprinkling of assorted theatre lovers.

The live show does follow the much-loved film fairly closely. It maximises the classic Australian humour and combines that humour with a little appropriate pathos in the storyline. Naturally, the dancing is spectacular – as are the costumes. (If your eyes get sore looking at sparkles, Lurex and incredibly bright colours, take your sunnies). The normally red plush seats of Her Maj are now covered with a sea of pink or green Lurex, to get you in the mood, and the stage curtain also shimmers in its red glory.

If I had to sum up the show in one line, I would say that it is a very Australian musical that works. If you want something deep and meaningful, you needed to be there last month when Les Mis was occupying Her Maj. But if you fancy something very accessible for the 8-108 demographic, that is purely entertaining and engaging, then this is your show. I add that I say that as a compliment, because it’s darned hard to get lighter shows to work seamlessly, and Strictly Ballroom does get most things right.

The array of talent on the stage is spectacular – lots of triple threats and everyone has to be at least a double threat. I appreciated the different skill mixes – some performers were obviously brilliant dancers and actors and adequate singers, whereas others were incredibly strong actors and singers and coped with the choreography. Timing of humour was excellent, and the casting agents can take a bow – the correct casting of the principals was a joy to behold.

In the lead roles of Scott and Fran, Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos didn’t disappoint. Thomas’s dancing was awe-inspiring and Phoebe’s delivery of lines was spot on – timing is not always easy and she got it right every time.

Taking out the comic honours were that fine actor Heather Mitchell as Shirley Hastings – having seen Hastings in many roles over the years she gets 10/10 from me for this knockout comic performance, as does the master of comedy and revue, Drew Forsythe, playing downtrodden husband Barry. There were also great performances from Robert Grubb as the sleazy Barry Fife, who steals the show many times, Bob Baines – a comic delight as former champion dancer and studio owner Les Kendall – and television veteran Mark Owen-Taylor revelling in the showy role of maverick MC JJ Silvers. Sultry-voiced Natalie Gamsu brought strength and superb singing to the role of Fran’s mother-figure Abuela, while dancer Fernando Mira showed us his brilliant flamenco dance skills as Fran’s father Rico.

In the smaller character role of ballroom dancer Ken Railings, Rohan Browne was a comic treat, as well as doing a fine job of tearing up the dance floor, and in the cameo of ultra-camp dance judge Terry Best, Tyler Coppin was hilarious. Chorus work was spectacular, and overall the music was most enjoyable, though not every number was memorable. The way the audience is involved in the curtain call meant that everyone could get up and dance, which gave a truly feel-good ending to this fun show.


Photo by Douglas Kirkland

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