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Review - Baz Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom at the Piccadilly Theatre
Be careful what you sometimes wish for. When I reviewed this stage version of Baz Luhrmann's first hit film Strictly Ballroom from 1992 on its UK premiere at West Yorkshire Playhouse in late 2016, I praised the dancing - but wrote that it needs more work to resonate dramatically and scenically.
Now it's been overhauled - and it feels like the spirit has been crushed out of it more or less entirely, just as the organisers of an Australian ballroom dance championship try to drum the hero's pursuit of his own individuality out of him and replace it with conformity.
The musical does pretty much the same thing, turning what was, in its earlier incarnation, a frequently fresh and exciting dance-based show, which occasionally got lost in the story it was trying to tell, into a by-numbers (in every sense) jukebox show that's part odd showcase for the camp karaoke song stylings of new star Will Young, and part double nostalgia fest for people who enjoyed the film and old pop standards. (All the original numbers, previously written by Eddie Perfect, have now been removed).
It has strangely retained the ugly physical designs of Soutra Gilmour, which additionally seem to dwarf and diminish the dance area available compared to what was available in Leeds, and which director/choreographer Drew McOnie now tries to populate the redundant upper levels of with dancers who look down and observer the action like left-overs from a production of Follies. (Commercial signage reinforces the comparison).
Yes, Will Young CAN sing - but the poor man, wearing a spangly top that makes him look like a version of Mr. Mistoffelees from Cats, has to sing just about everything in the entire show, like a mix-tape accompaniment for every dance. The relentless pop parade, that stretches from David Bowie and Cyndi Lauper to Billy Idol and Sting, starts to sound bland in just one voice, and the newly-introduced character he has been given to play - a kind of MC, a little nod to his last stage role in Kander and Ebb's Cabaret - is not deployed with any narrative point.
And yes, Jonny Labey - the diminutive winner of the 2017 series Dance Dance Dance - can dance athletically, as required, though he lacks much of a defining personality. A more appealing progression is charted by Zizi Strallen - who honours the showbiz law that every West End musical nowadays must feature a member of the Strallen dynasty - from ugly duckling to dance partner to Labey's character, while Fernando Mira as her Paso Doble dancing dad taps up a storm to offer the most powerful physical presence on the stage.
With Broadway currently bringing jukebox back musical catalogues of Jimmy Buffett and Donna Summer to the stage, and the West End now offering similar treatments for shows featuring music made famous by Tina Turner and Jim Steinman, there's hardly room for this disappointingly flaccid and ultimately tacky spectacle.
Strictly Ballroom Tickets are available now.
Photo credit Johan Persson