Strictly Ballroom: The Musical @ West Yorkshire Playhouse
Strictly Ballroom arrives in a whirlwind of film-to-stage adaptations and this current trend sees some musical adaptations becoming even greater successes than their cinematic prototypes (hello, Billy Elliot). Even the lesser well-known films – Kinky Boots, Once, Let the Right One In – have earned plaudits on the boards and, while Strictly Ballroom falls into that category, it certainly won’t be earning any plaudits.
You can see why Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 Australian comedy, based in turn on his own short play, would be ripe for a musical adaptation. Strictly Ballroom sees ballroom dancing champion Scott Hastings’ long to dance his own moves as he rails against the rigid constraints of competitive ballroom dancing. He finds solace in Fran, a downtrodden beginner at his mother’s dance studio, who introduces him to the more rhythmic Spanish style of dancing. Against the wishes of Scott’s overbearing mother, Shirley, they bring the Paso Doble to the ballroom world.
Perhaps the key to any film-to-theatre adaptation is moulding the story into a theatrical production while capturing the essence of the original film. The Full Monty, which recently played at the Leeds Grand, is an excellent example of this, a riotous adaptation that adds fresh jokes and expands some of the film’s slighter storylines. Strictly Ballroom seems to forget that a fleetingly short film does not directly translate into a two-and-a-half hour long musical. It doesn’t risk veering away from the original story and thus this sequined dancing extravaganza falls flat.
Without the flamboyant, absurd tone of Luhrmann’s original comedy, we find ourselves instead with a by-the-numbers musical lacking two key components: humour and heart. In the film, the boot-stamping grandeur of the Paso Doble was a show-stopping opposition to the stiff pomposity of ballroom dancing. Here, however, the theatre-quality ballroom dancing is so fluid and mesmerising that Scott’s desire for individuality seems petulant and self-indulgent.
Without understanding our main character’s plight, we also don’t care about his central romance with Fran. Sam Lips, as Scott Hastings, is clearly a better dancer than actor and Gemma Sutton, as Fran, is clearly a better actor than dancer. As a result, the romantic scenes are unconvincing and their dance numbers together fail to impress. The word-for-word adaptation of Luhrmann’s script doesn’t allow for any new character depth and any attempt at humour nosedives.
The most Luhrmann-esque element is the development of the film’s soundtrack into musical numbers, use of Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time and John Paul Young’s Love is in the Air reflecting the pop mash-up vibe of Moulin Rouge, but it’s juxtaposed with an incongruous and derivative musical score. Throw in some audience interaction and cute kids and it feels that Strictly Ballroom is begging you to like it, but ends up seeming a bit desperate.
It’s a shame then that the production itself is so well-honed that you wish it were part of a better show. The origami-like set folds and unfolds into various locations in bafflingly brilliant ways and the ballroom dancing is phenomenal. The acting mostly holds up – hindered by screeching cod-Australian accents – and Richard Dempsey stands out as a glittering, grinning compère. Whenever he is on stage, you feel some of the film’s irreverent charm.
If anything is to be learned from Strictly Ballroom, it’s that adaptations are tricky beasts. They can try to capture the original magic, delivering sparkle, glamour, campness and craziness but, without taking any creative risks, the audience will be left wondering what all the fuss is all about.
Strictly Ballroom: The Musical will be playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 21st January 2017.