Review: Strictly Ballroom

Frankston Arts Centre
PLOS Musical Productions
Until 5 August

On Friday I attended the opening night of Strictly Ballroom: The Musical for PLOS Musical Productions. In the film industry, Baz Luhrmann is one of the most notable Australian names behind the scenes as a writer/producer/drector, his films can be hit or miss in the eyes of critics and audiences but the extravagant charisma he exhibits in each of his movies have added an element of magic. Two of his films have also had the privilege to be adapted as a musical, the Tony award winning Moulin Rouge and his first directorial feat, Strictly Ballroom, the latter of which he also had a hand in adapting. It’s a necessity for anyone who adapts any of Luhrmann’s films on the stage to replicate or if one is bold enough, reimagine the visually stunning effects, settings and storytelling one of his productions inhabits in a respectful format that pays homage to his stylings and the cinematic element of theatre. PLOS are no strangers to utilising similar methods in multiple productions over the years from factual retellings to fictional fantasies, so expectations were high when it came to bringing their latest show to life and it was evident within the first few seconds that the expectations were met and welcomed by everyone in the auditorium for another wondrous spectacle that got us all on our feet. 

In the director’s chair, Karl McNamara was right back where he belonged in his first production since before the dreaded pandemic who along with assistant director Bec Ginsberg, painted a stunning avant-garde portrait of the glitz and glamour of the competitive ballroom dancing circuit in his creative vision with a side of metaphors for the amateur theatre community we love so dear, flaws and all. Through his strong background in character work, McNamara guided all of his performers to be as excessive as possible in the best ways imaginable to present a satirical yet symbolic and spellbinding directorial feat that captured the essence of each and every one of the artists who make up performing arts scenes all across the world. This ranged from those who are just starting out to those who’ve been in the game for years, from those who do as their told to those unafraid to think differently outside the box and from those self-absorbed, pretentious divas that aren’t as prevalent anymore but can still be found in some areas to those who steer clear of drama entirely, resulting in representation that shined through every step of the way. Behind the baton, musical director Bev Woodford and vocal director Maddy Corbel had their work cut out for them with Strictly Ballroom’s complex score of original music and alternate arrangements of songs highlighted in the original film. Instrumentation wise, Woodford and her trusted band never missed a single beat and kept the rhythm of life very much alive while Corbel enabled each vocalist to explore various crafty techniques that enhanced the vocal characteristics of each character that blended good old Australian dipthong with hierarchical performance class in an MD turn that was constant, commendable and carefree. One of the greatest elements of the musical was its choreography and it was all made possible by choreographer Steve Rostron, who along with assistant choreographer Emily Downie opened the doors to dance stylings both in and outside of ballroom that kept the creative juices flowing throughout the company as a whole and honoured Luhrmann’s non-conformist storyline of a dancer who wants to revolutionise the steps of the ballroom field. Rostron’s routines were the work of genius and grandeur in a choreographic effort that was nothing short of a masterclass that can put some of the world’s greatest dancers to shame as it created borderline professional dancers out of novices and placed the most skilled of dancers on pedestals in order to take our community by storm. 

The characters of Strictly Ballroom were separated into two categories, those we loved to root for and those we loved to hate and this was all fantastically portrayed by the company cast that took on these roles. The first side are the open and shut cases of the classic heroes and heroines we root for all the way through any stage or screen production and love their imperfections just as much as their do no wrong qualities. The second side are characters we must look closer into as characters who are one hundred percent evil don’t work or adapt too well in this day and age so when one brings these characters to life, they either need to install the human element or turn them into characters the audience love loathing for entertainment value, the latter of which was the route chosen by said characters in this production and it worked magnificently. Before I dive deeper into my analysis of the lead cast, I wish to highlight the work of the ensemble and featured ensemble who worked tirelessly to keep the production’s fire burning for the leads who ignited it to begin with. Their colourful efforts were not in vain and every routine and scene was made all the more mesmerising with their inclusion no matter what side of the character spectrum they leaned towards and their talents raised themselves up to glory status alongside the leads, where ensembles always aught to be. 

On to the leads, we start with Strictly Ballroom’s protagonist and hero Scott Hastings who was portrayed by Mitchell Smith in a riveting and romantic performance that set our hearts on fire with burning love as he lead the dancefloor with each of his perfectly timed steps, serenaded our souls with his rich voice and was unafraid to showcase the duality of his character in Scott’s dilemma through his acting chops. Next, we had Lauren Edwards and her performance as the ultimate stage mother, Shirley Hastings, who in her first stage musical venture in five years (her last appearance ironically in another production of Strictly Ballroom), put her skills as a comedienne into phenomenal practice so she could inform her chastising yet chilling and charismatic characterisation of every performer’s worse nightmare in the familial department, blending inspiration from characters like Velma Von Tussle in Hairspray and Matron Gribble in Round The Twist with the work of Shirley’s original actress, the late Pat Thomson. The character of Doug Hastings may have been shy and scared to say more than two words until the show neared its end, but John Tracey was anything but in his brave and breathtaking physical performance as it spoke loud volumes to the masses that filled the auditorium through his journey to regain his voice and stand up for not only himself but for his son. Carla Gianinotti was a real standout in the role of Abuela and it was brought to all new heights by Diego Torres in the role of her son-in-law Rico; together they delivered performances that found a beautiful balance between hot and heartfelt as the strong supportive figures our two leads needed the most on their creative journey and it’s hard to see why they were supporting roles when they were truly leading the way for change in the lives of every character in the story. 

Chris Brown and Peter Jenkins were both flamboyant and flashy in their portrayals of competition host JJ Silvers and dance coach Les Kendall respectively and not simply because of their outrageous wigs and costumes (that’s another story) as they kept the crowd’s energy up with every scene they were present in and kept us on our toes with anticipation. As Kylie Hastings and dance partner Luke, Matilda Doughty and Aiden Floris were the most admirable and adorable pair in portrayals that were reminiscent of the innocence young performers in our community have and they sparkled just as brightly as the older performers in the spectacle did. 
Natasha Harvey was terrifyingly tenacious and tactful as she transformed into the diva that was Liz Holt so relentlessly, making it ever the more satisfying when she gets a taste of her own medicine and pays the price for her abandonment of her previous dance partner. Speaking of which, Joel Richardson was pompous and proud as Liz’s new dance partner Ken Rawlings as he wooed her with his character’s arrogance and egotism so convincingly, becoming her perfect match up until his poetic fall from grace at the end. Ethan Hooper and Hayley Wooten may not have been the most prominent characters as Wayne Burns and dance partner Vanessa Cronin but their performances were still noble and noteworthy for their impact on the overall story in the ultimate climax. Tina Sparkle, Pam Short and Nathan may have been rejected or left the dance world for whatever reason but Remi Stock, Sheila Gregg and Nicholas Krizmanic all got the chance to demonstrate what they were made of as masters of dance in electric and elaborate portrayals that placed a spotlight on the performers out their who avoid backstage drama whether it was their choosing or not. 

The king and queen of the floor and the production were two performers who couldn’t be on more opposite sides of the musical’s character spectrum but they both held us in the palm of their hands with their portrayals and they were Bryn Clapp in the supporting antagonistic role of Australian Dancing Federation head Barry Fife and Guada Bañez in the female lead role of Scott’s dance partner and later love interest Fran. Despite his death in 2011, Barry’s original actor Bill Hunter was reincarnated in Clapp’s portrayal through some of the most convincing voice work I’ve ever seen on the stages of Melbourne and commitment to his craft that was nothing short of legendary and lively. Despite being relatively new to our state’s theatre scene, I believe it is performances like Clapp’s that can stand the test of time in our circuit and I think it’s safe to say that his take on Barry Fife could sky-rocket his credibility all the way up to well-deserved recognition overnight and he could even get award nominations when the 2023 performance season comes to a close. Bañez could also garner award recognition for her seductive and sanctimonious portrayal of Fran through magnetic chemistry with co-star Mitchell Smith that hit a sweet spot for all watching their rhythm driven love story unfold and limitless immersion into both her character’s clumsy and confident sides as her arc progressed. Bañez succeeded in taking the audience on this emotional roller coaster ride through every song, scene and routine solo or partnered and all eyes were on her whenever she set foot on the stage and it was a true testament to how the strengths and stamina of female performers can command and change our circuit for the better. 

PLOS’ Strictly Ballroom The Musical achieved the campiest of qualities that made the original film so groundbreaking for the Australian arts industry all the while placing their own spin on the timeless 90s classic. Love was truly in the air throughout the entire night and the magic that Baz Luhrmann creates in all of his features showered the stage through extravagant technical designs, melodramatic yet masterful performances and production team work that kept us hypnotised and it guaranteed all of the Melbourne amateur theatre community that the company’s next outing will be just as fantastical in their follow up production. Special shoutout to Lauren Thompson for her performance in the production and to everyone else in the cast and crew associated with Strictly Ballroom for a groundbreaking opening night. If you haven’t gotten your tickets for the production yet, make sure you get your hands on some while their still up for grabs, support the company and local theatre. Congratulations PLOS on the start of what is going to be another fantastic season, whether it’s strictly ballroom or not, chookas for the rest of your season and keeping dancing on the edge of a leap of faith.

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Lucas Ioppolo

Lucas Ioppolo

Lucas Ioppolo is a community theatre performer with a passion to bring a positive energy and encouragement to those in theatre who have gone unnoticed or underrepresented. They hope their reviews can help bring the spotlight back to a community that has helped them throughout the years.
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