This Australian opus delivers a festive “feet, do your stuff” kaleidoscopic pageant of colour, music and movement. Visions of Astaire, Kelly, Rogers, Miller and Murray (“Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing In A Hurry”) dance in memory to a once celebrated art form. Dancing in this age is defined by arm waving, grinding and bumping to high decibel thumping in crowded night clubs, while ballroom dancing is just a footnote in the public conscience. This show then is a welcome return of the classy sophistication once enjoyed by practioners who whirled, twirled, and dipped on the dance floor
The standard narrative (underdog gaining respect) adds drama, but the classic music and dance is the major factor, a motivation for the talented cast and for winning audience pleasure. When was the last time you enjoyed dancing to, or watching, the traditional variations of graceful movement at the core of the beguine, tango, waltz, flamenco, samba, etc.
“Strictly Ballroom” started out as a student play about competitive dancing. In 1992, Oz director Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge”) transformed the work into a movie which attained cult status. Now the narrative has come full circle. Luhrmann is the father of the production now on stage in its Toronto North American premiere.
The plot is essentially a fable about artistic freedom of expression, a metaphore for believing in personal achievement. The show follows the fortunes of Scott Hastings (Sam Lips), a talented young dancer in 1980s Australia. The well known “creative differences” have caused a rift between Hastings (the dance lead) and the producer of the ensemble which is in the midst of final rehearsals for a major dance competition.
Scott has his own choreographic ideas which excludes the self centered partner assigned to him. He is instead captivated by a mousey novice with raw talent. Sensing a compatibility with Fran (Gemma Sutton), Scott breaks away from the team, offering encouragement, tutoring and faith in her potential, an initiative which breaks Fran out of her shell.
The underdog plot line, though cliched, isn’t negative, allowing lattitude for director/choreographer Drew McOnie to burn up the floor with spirited steps. The dual artistic chore is not a standard assignment in Britain, but here, McOnie nicely integrates movement and acting. McOnie’s vision fuels Scott’s defiant solo, alone in the studio reflected off three mirror images, suggesting a dance-off against himself.
Sam Lips has a matinee idol attractiveness which, enhanced by his dancing dexterity, draws envious and jealous emotions from his compatriot characters. He plays Scott with a sprinkling of ego leaning more to self-confidence than vanity in his artistic integrity.
As Fran, Gemma Sutton is a noteable addition to the produiction. Her pairing with Lips is solid casting. Sutton has a marvelous voice blessed with a vocal range. Further, I admired her acting, switching from shy and insecure wannabe to the “belle of the ball” with romantic designs. Sutton also steps with ease through the challenging choreographly.
The audience is jolted when Fran brings her tutor/new partner home to meet family. Papa Rico (Fernando Mira) is a strict disciplinarian. Strong on tradition, the retired dancer is skeptical of his daughter’s involvement in the upcoming dance competition. Thinking Scott an opportunist, Rico demonstrates the difference between dancing with your head (modern) and dancing with your heart (traditional). In a blazing display Rico puts on a head spinning demonstration of paso doble, the ancient music and rhythm of 16th century Spain. In a counter-point emphasizing the passionate nature of dance, Mira stops the show with his unexpected performance. The sequence cleverly keeps the show beating to the rhythm.
McOnie injects the right moves between his female and male dancers. For the ladies, their femininity is assured with appropriate moves in the demanding routines. The boys are taxed with muscular, technically precise, yet compatible movements. Thus the blending of the couples is solidly smooth, emotionally satisfying. I recall fondly dancing like this in two favorite shows, “West Side Story” and “On The Town”.
“Strictly Ballroom the Musical” offers an entertainment that’s part fairy tale, offering comfort and a hoped for reality in an abused world. Dance reigns at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto where it continues through June 25th.