Mirvish presents Baz Luhrmann’s musical stage adaptation of his film Strictly Ballroom in Toronto
Australian director Baz Luhrmann has adapted his 1992 cult hit film Strictly Ballroom into a stage musical and yes, it features all the razzle-dazzle dance numbers and brightly sequinned costumes you’d expect. The result is a show that provides some frivolous, superficial fun but that also gets a bit lost in the transition from screen to stage.
As is typical of Luhrmann’s work, there’s definitely a focus on visual style over narrative substance. In fact, the plot is entirely predictable: Scott Hastings (Sam Lips) a hotshot competitive ballroom dancer loses a big competition and his dance partner because of his unconventional personal style of dance. He meets Fran (Gemma Sutton), a plain-looking beginner-level dancer in his mother’s dance studio and, well, you can probably fill in the rest yourself.
While the plot is basically the same as the movie, the stage version differs greatly in tone; it’s much less satirical. The film Strictly Ballroom is to competitive ballroom dancing what the Will Ferrell movie Blades of Glory is to figure skating: a tongue-in-cheek send-up of an arcane competitive art form full of big personalities and chintzy costumes. While the stage version is still done in a campy style, it ultimately tries to tell the story earnestly, which didn’t really work for me.
Absent the edge from that layer of irony the plot becomes kind of unpalatable. The “unlikely lovers” and “underdog-in-a-competition” plot points are clichés, and the part where Scott meets Fran’s Spanish family, who teach him how to dance the paso doble, is an obvious use of the “magical ethnic person” (a variation on the Magical Negro) trope. The irreverent tone of the film skewers these tropes but played out in earnest the writing just comes off as hokey.
Strictly Ballroom was the director’s first film and is notably less surreal and fantastical than his later works. Going into this stage adaptation, I was wondering if Luhrmann would incorporate more of the grandiose and magical style he’s known for in his later films. While the production design elements create some grand visual moments (particularly Soutra Gilmour’s multi-level, polymorphic set), the director opts to play it straight rather than go for a surrealist angle.
For what they’re worth, director/choreographer Drew McOnie’s dance numbers are pleasing if not exactly ground-breaking. The group ballroom numbers are colourful and eye-catching, but when he tries to stretch into something more modern and conceptual, like the numbers where Scott dances with the male dance corps and several dancers repeatedly lift him, it looks a bit awkward and I was unclear what he was going for.
I also didn’t think any of the new songs incorporated into the show were particularly memorable or even necessary. While the movie clocks in at a zippy 90 minutes, the stage version is significantly longer with a run time of two and a half hours (including intermission) and the pace tends to drag, especially in the second act. At several moments throughout the show the action grinds to a halt so a character can sing a song that simply belabours some plot point. Not every single moment needs a song.
For their part, Sam Lips and Gemma Sutton deliver strong, triple-threat performances in the lead roles. Generally though, I found that most of the cast channeled the performances from the film. Many characters are even styled to look exactly the way they did in the movie. Given how iconic the film is to a significant portion of the audience who would see this adaption, this is probably a smart aesthetic choice.
Ultimately, Strictly Ballroom wasn’t a show that particularly appealed to me, but it’s not an entirely unenjoyable watch either, and many in the audience seemed to genuinely enjoy it. If you’re looking for a fun, frivolous show or if you’re a fan of the film, you may like it more than I did.
- Strictly Ballroom is playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre (300 King Street West) through June 25, 2017
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.
- Tickets $38.00 to $139.00
- Tickets are available by phone at 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333, in-person at the Princes of Wales Theatre box office or online at Mirvish.com
Photo of the 2016 UK company of Strictly Ballroom by Alastair Muir