Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Strictly Ballroom - the musical version

On Saturday afternoon, Mum and I went to the matinee performance of Strictly Ballroom, which finishes in Melbourne this week. And while I found it thoroughly enjoyable, I also...had a lot of thoughts about it.

1. The staging was AMAZING. 
The stage rotates, and the sets are all in pieces that can be moved and assembled as required. All the sets are also double-sided so that scenes can take place, for instance, inside the dance studio or looking through the windows, at Fran's house or out the front of the milk bar, on the dance floor or backstage.

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2. The costumes are glorious. 
A lot of them are basically copies of the costumes from the movie, but they're still great. Plus, there are so many on-stage costume changes that it's basically Eurovision. There are even some on-stage hair changes. Basically, everything about the costumes, hair and make up is great.

3. The choreography is great.
Obviously, they're restricted by the size of the stage, so some of the big dramatic moves from the movie have to be altered (like Scott spinning across the floor). But on the whole, the choreography was totally brilliant and far more individualised than musical choreography tends to be.

4. The music felt...disjointed.
Look, the music was such a huge part of the movie, and obviously they were never going to be able to get the rights to all the songs they used. And obviously, they needed to include original songs to progress the story. But the problem for me is that there wasn't a single choreographer. There wasn't even a single lyricist.

The original songs are split between about four main composers, with input from a range of others. Add in the fact that there are half a dozen songs that aren't original - including Time After Time and Love Is In the Air - and the whole thing just ended up feeling like there was nothing to tie it together.

There's a great quote from an episode of The Office where Darryl shushes Michael as the orchestra starts playing because "If we don’t listen to the overture, we won’t recognise the musical themes when they come back later." And I think that's part of the problem here. There really weren't any recurring musical themes.

5. The demand for new steps was weirdly turned into a Les Mis style protest-y song.
In the movie, the argument in favour of new steps is about 30 seconds of people chanting "new steps, new steps!" while dance newsletters spin on screen with sensationalist headlines, ending with Barry Fife saying "THERE WILL BE NO NEW STEPS". But in the musical, that somehow gets turned into two separate songs: one in which Barry has nightmares about people asking for new steps, and one in which the entire company wave placards and flags and Scott dances around encouraging them to protest. Basically, it was all a little strange.

6. Insufficient anger.
Don't get me wrong, Thomas Lacey was great in the role of Scott Hastings. But what shines through so strongly in the movie is Scott's anger. It's not just that he's bored of the steps, bored of doing what his mother and his dance teacher tell him. He's frustrated. He's angry. He's sick of other people dictating what he can do with his life. It's that anger and passion that makes that finale paso doble so perfect. And Paul Mercurio does that anger so brilliantly in the movie. But on stage - and it's totally understandable, because portraying that much anger consistently over two hours, eight times a week? NOPE - none of that really came through.

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7. Fernando Mira's solo was FLAWLESS.
It was never going to be easy to follow Antonio Vargas' fabulous turn as Fran's father, Rico, in the movie. And really, Rico feels like a much smaller part in the stage production. But the "pffff, that's not paso doble" solo from Fernando Mira was pretty damned incredible. It's not entirely surprising that he and Natalie Gamsu (who played Abuela) got the biggest round of applause during the curtain call.

8. I have mixed feelings about the audience participation elements.
Having the theatre divided into blocks of coloured seats and having the audience cheer for the performers wearing that colour in the "competitions" was a fun idea. And I loved the opening of act 2 in which a couple from the audience were pulled on stage to become part of the performance in Beautiful When You Dance, which was definitely one of the strongest songs.

But trying to recreate the ending of the movie, where the dance floor is flooded with spectators joining in the fun didn't entirely work for me. There ended up being maybe 50 audience members on stage, but many of them just swayed back and forth awkwardly, despite having rushed up on the stage. One little girl looked like she was about to cry. And then giving those audience members a curtain call was just...strange.

9. Mike Snell WAS Ken Railings.
He did an absolutely phenomenal job of playing a character who's sleazy and a total drunk but still incredibly funny and somehow likeable. If I hadn't known better, I would have sworn it was John Hannan, who played Ken in the film, up there.

10. I think I'd give it 7/10?
I know I sound like I'm being overly negative here. It really was a thoroughly enjoyable musical production. But. It's also not one where I left singing any of the songs, unlike when I saw Book of Mormon last year and spent the next three days with You And Me But Mostly Me stuck in my head. It's not one where I came out of the theatre and wanted to go straight to the box office for tickets to see it again, like I wanted to with Les Miserables last year (but didn't because tickets were $125). Instead, I came home and watched the movie. Which, strangely, does a better job of recurring musical themes...

So yeah. It was an enjoyable afternoon. But I can't help but think that it might be better if you had no prior exposure to the story and went in not expecting certain moments, certain pieces of music and certain characters portrayed in a particular way.

K xx

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