CLOC’s Strictly Ballroom is sure to be a hit with audiences – it is visually stunning, and it brings to the stage a familiar and much-loved story.
Craig Wiltshire took on the mammoth triple task of director, choreographer, and set designer. The mood created by the set in its pre-show state was one of extravagance and opulence – lush red curtains, mirror balls in abundance, and the warm glow of lights in the mid-stage proscenium arch. The ‘stage within a stage’ set concept serviced the action well, allowing the audience to see backstage and onstage action simultaneously.
The modular pieces of set functioned well in transporting us from scene to scene with only minimal fuss. It was a shame that the movement of the set pieces was noisy, which was distracting in some of the quiet, poignant moments. Knowing the precision of set moves that CLOC has achieved in the past, it was disappointing to see that when the set did 360 degree rotations, it did not stay central. One curiosity – the gorgeous archways, located downstage on both sides of the stage, would have been great entry points for key moments, and yet, they were never utilized.
Choreographing Strictly Ballroom is a huge undertaking, and Wiltshire is to be congratulated for his efforts. The ‘Open Latin Final – All Out War’ number was a feast for the eyes – to see each couple having their own individual routine and own track to cover on the stage while serving the story was very satisfying. That said, the required level of precision was lacking. There needed to be more crispness in the execution of Wiltshire’s choreography. It is puzzling that more trained ballroom dancers weren’t cast. The show would lift greatly with skilled ballroom dancers onstage, backed up vocally by some booth singers (akin to the way some companies support the dancers in shows like Cats).
There’s no denying that the cast are skilled dancers when it comes to music theatre choreography. This was plainly evidenced in the final song of act one, ‘Magnifico’. Certainly, there were ballroom elements, but the confidence shown by the cast lifted markedly for this number. It was the highlight of the show, and sent the audience out for interval in an uplifted mood.
Mal Fawcett capably handled the music direction. The vocal performances from the cast were strong, even throughout the dancing. One or two cracked trumpet notes aside, the orchestra played very well. Fawcett and band were well supported by Marcello Lo Ricco’s sound design. Balance between cast and orchestra was well maintained, aside from a couple of moments when the underscoring was a little too loud for the dialogue. Hats off to Lo Ricco for ensuring that sound was not compromised when the dancers were lifted and lengths of skirting were a possible impairment to clear amplification.
The costumes – oh wow, the costumes are visually spectacular and a rainbow of colour. Victoria Horne’s designs have taken a lead from the 1992 film, dressing Liz Holt in yellow, Wayne and Vanessa in purple and green, etc. The ballroom gowns are exactly what they ought to be – voluminous, extravagant and beautiful. Hats off to Horne and (what must be) her huge host of wardrobe assistants for the construction of these iconic dresses. The Latin costumes bring the right note of slinkiness and drama, but one or two had an underdone look about them when lined up with the others. The muted tones and styles of the Spanish backyard party served the scene very well – rustic and earthy. It was delightful to see individual touches for select characters – I particularly enjoyed Ken Railngs’ monogrammed socks, and Shirley’s a-little-bit-much house coat.
Completing the look of Horne’s costuming was David Wisken’s hair and make up design. The chosen wigs and the way they were styled was most apropos for the ballroom world. Quick costume changes can be a little rough on up-do wigs, but I trust that touch ups will be done throughout the season to tame the occasional distracting fly aways. Ken Railing’s wig was wonderfully tacky and suited the character to a tee. The wig used for Les Kendall was a bit hit and miss – the length of it and the way it fell took focus away from the actor’s face.
Lighting design by Brad Alcock completed the look of the production. There were some choices which really supported the onstage action – one moment of note was at the end of ‘Fran’s Epiphany’ when the lighting state for Fran’s inner monologue did a snap change when she was interrupted by Scott, and the new lighting state held elements of what had been as it shifted into a new mood.
In the role of Fran, Kristen Mihalos gave a brilliant performance. Her dorkiness when as we first meet Fran is endearing, and she handles the transition to elegance with appropriate degrees of improved skill. Vocally, Mihalos is strong and secure, and shows great control in quieter moments. Her dancing skills shine in the role.
Dylan Henry’s Scott was clearly frustrated by the confines of having to keep every dance move strictly ballroom. Henry’s performance was not as well-rounded as that of his co-star, but nonetheless, he very capably brings us the light and shade of Scott. Wiltshire’s choreography of Scott’s solo in Kendall’s Studio played to Henry’s strong ballet abilities and he danced it beautifully, but it would have been good to see a more grounded and gritty routine with more of an improvised feel. Henry is vocally equal to the role, and his duets with Mihalos were well matched.
A highlight from the film is the Paso Doble in the final scene. You expect to see Scott knee slide across the dance floor in a re-creation of the iconic moment. It is not clear what happened in the performance on May 12th, a stage traffic issue perhaps, but Henry was suddenly on his knees without sliding, and Mihalos who had struck a pose had to shift upstage to be nearer to him. Although the Paso was very short in its presentation, disappointingly so, I do hope that the knee slide was simply a missed moment and not an omitted choreographic choice.
Shirley Hasting’s stage mother and fishwife qualities were well captured by Elizabeth Garnsworthy. Her comic timing served her well, and she also allowed the audience to keenly feel her disappointment and desperation. Her solo, ‘What Was It All For?’, was delivered with conviction, even though the top notes were a little weaker than the main body of her voice.
Robert Harsley gave Doug Hastings an air of quiet sadness, and a resignation that his life was more about survival rather than living. When his meekness gave way to a long held rage, the audience rewarded Doug’s show of strength with a hearty round of applause. Harsley’s performance of ‘What Was It All For?’ displayed a vocal tone of substance, which he layered with great emotion. An audience favourite, Doug’s Flashback Sequence showed the hero of past times to have a goofy yet debonair charm.
Fran’s family is key to the story. Elizabeth Matjacic was well-cast as Abuela: warm and maternal, a little bit cheeky, and loved by her family. Her act two duet with Fran, ‘Love is a Leap of Faith’ was delivered with great heart, and sung with ease. It is such a shame that the role of Rico didn’t have more stage time – Tim Ryan brought a dominant presence to the role of Fran’s father, and it would have been great to see a little more development of the character.
It’s hard to think about Strictly Ballroom and not have Bill Hunter come to mind as Barry Fife. Lee Threadgold gives a commanding performance as Fife, and brings to it just a dash of Hunter – sometimes it’s a gesture, other times an inflection. Although the song ‘Dance to Win’ is a little lacklustre in its melodic shaping, Threadgold sings the song with ease, taking real ownership of the number and easily holding the attention of the audience.
It’s always great to see characters behaving badly, and the ladies of Strictly don’t disappoint. Glamour be damned, they do what they have to do to win and it doesn’t matter who they knock down on the way up. We saw beautifully ‘boganesque’ turns from Lauren Edwards as spoilt brat Liz Holt, and from Melanie Ott as the glittering Tina Sparkles. Both ladies had command over their broad Australian accents, and sang with strength and confidence.
Not to be outdone by the ladies, the gents in featured dancer roles did not disappoint. David Torr as Ken Railings was wonderfully smarmy, and Tom O’Reilly clearly enjoyed making Wayne Burns a blokey, somewhat dorky dancer – his pronunciation of the infamous ‘Bogo Pogo’ was delightful.
Phil Lambert as Les Kendall was suitably simpering and was a great foil for Garnsworthy’s Shirley. Ashley Weidner portrayed the emcee figure of J.J. Silvers. His was a performance full of camp and over zealousness.
CLOC ‘s latest production of Strictly Ballroom delivers beautifully in its visual elements, and has strength in its singing and acting performances. Audiences will love the spectacle of the competitive dance world.
Strictly Ballroom is playing at the National Theatre in St Kilda until May 26th. Tickets are available through http://www.cloc.org.au