It may only take two to tango, but it takes more than that to make a great musical.

Lyric Theatre, Star City, Sydney

April 12, 2014

For a great many 30-40 somethings Baz Luhrmann’s hit musical film is a feel-good icon that touched the soul of 1990s Australia. Like Dirty Dancing or Saturday Night Fever before it, there’s a generation of fans who can quote you the lines and sing you the songs. In other words, tamper with this much-loved classic at your peril. Looking at the smart, glitzy show that’s currently filling Sydney’s Lyric Theatre, on the surface there is much to admire – sets, costumes, lighting and some fine performances – but scratch that surface and, alas, tampering is just what Baz Luhrmann appears to have done.

The plusses first. Top of the list should come the performers, as Luhrmann has assembled an excellent cast of seasoned pros and newcomers. In the leads, Phoebe Panaretos as Fran is a real star in the making. Hers is a performance of great charm, and with the aid of a Spanish grandmother and father (the earthy, warm-hearted Natalie Gamsu and flamenco-stepping Fernando Mira), she makes us care about her journey from strictly goofball to strictly ballroom. It’s an attractive voice as well, firm and clean. Thomas Lacey has plenty of sensitivity and appeal as Scott, and he’s an excellent dancer as well, but he (or the director) defines his journey less sharply and he lacks the fire in the soul of the free-spirited rebel.

Virtually stealing the show are seasoned veterans, Heather Mitchell as Scott’s mother Shirley (a pink-clad study in hysteria who wears her nerves over her costumes) and Drew Forsythe as poor-old Doug who yearns to dance once more and whose inhaler punctuates the music like an asthmatic percussion section. They manage to overcome Luhrmann’s hyper-stylised characterisations to reveal the struggling souls beneath.

Equally effective is Robert Grubb as the monstrous NAFOD (that’s the National Australian Federation of Dance) President Barry Fife determined that no new steps shall enter the hallowed halls of ballroom dance on his watch. Bob Bains makes a good fist of Scott’s coach, the closeted Les Kendall, while Andrew Cook stands out as Scott’s gormless best mate Wayne. The two kids are excellent, the ensemble work their socks off.

Set and costumes next, and Catherine Martin deserves another Academy Award to add to her groaning mantle-piece, delivering a host of spectacular sequined ball gowns and fantasies of haute couture. The set is also a winner, a series of platforms that split apart and manage to engage in their own choreography as they take us from dance studio to street scene to ballroom. Wendy de Waal’s hair and make-up matches Martin step for step with bouffants and quiffs the size of wedding cakes. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting is OTT, in typical Luhrmannesque style, but still manages to create some breath-taking images, like the dissolve into Doug’s 1967 Pan-Pacific Grand Prix fantasy sequence – one of the director’s finer moments.

So what’s not to love? There are several culprits here and perhaps top of the list must come the inevitable feeling of too many cooks having spoiled the structural broth. There are a host of musical contributors and fundamentally it all feels far too diverse, veering from pop song to classical remix to musical theatre pastiche, without a sufficiently linking aesthetic in orchestration or sound design. Too few songs take wing – and it’s over 20 minutes before we get the first proper solo! The band of 10 work hard but most of the time it feels like they are simply playing on top of a souped-up click-track (the show lifts for the few moments when a live musician appears on stage).

Worst offender is probably the new lyrics. With the exception of Eddie Perfect’s contributions, these are poorly crafted, awkwardly glued on and frequently rendered semi-audible by the sound engineering. This is a cardinal error in a musical and adds to the general problem of understanding the function of many of the minor characters. Sticking some duff words over a bit of Johann Strauss isn’t going to cut the musical mustard with either the Sondheim crowd or for that matter the Love is in the Air fans.

So what should Luhrmann have done? He might have handed it over lock, stock and barrel to an experienced musical theatre team – as was done with the surprisingly successful Hairspray, another much-loved film given a new incarnation in musical theatre form. That might have ensured greater cohesion. Or he could have gone properly down the jukebox musical path and shaped the show around a series of ‘Baz’s greatest hits’. Again, cohesion would most likely have ensued. As it is, what we have is at best an entertaining hotpotch, at worst, frankly a mess.

Directorially it’s a bit of a mixed bag too. Luhrmann’s decision to push everything that little bit further into the realm of kitsch than he did in the film means that the performers all feel as though they have one hand tied behind their backs when it comes to reaching the audience’s hearts. It’s still a tale of the victory of artistic freedom in the face of oppression as Scott and Fran take on the ballroom bullies to show there’s more than one way to cha cha cha. It’s just lost a lot of the subtleties of the movie along the way. The sweetness and heart are still there in the story, the moments of sufficient delicacy to get them across though are fleeting.

The musical staging flows nicely and is mostly effective (although there are some tricky split focus issues here and there, especially in the messy final sequence). The storytelling needs work though. A number like Time After Time is so frequently interrupted in an attempt to make it carry the story that it never manages to take off. Choreographically John O’Connell has done what he does best with few surprises. At times it’s spectacular but nothing ever really takes flight in the way for which Luhrmann is justifiably famous. Most surprisingly, Scott and Fran’s final winning dance falls flat when surely it should top everything that has come before.

The show has ambitions. There’s clearly a great deal of money sunk in this one and it must have Broadway firmly in its sights. In its current form, I can’t help but think US critics, who are passionate about the musical and care about things like craft and form, would have it for breakfast. So, back to the drawing board perhaps? It’s not all doom and gloom for Luhrmann – a great many people clearly enjoyed the experience – but there were also several near me who didn’t stick around for the second half.

As it stands Strictly Ballroom has something to offer for those who want a pleasant night out, but if you want an insightful piece of musical theatre, best look elsewhere… for now.

Strictly Ballroom is at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre.