Baz Lurhrmann is eccentric. His movies are colourful, hallucinatory, and divide audiences. But they feature storylines, characters and soundtracks that translate beautifully to stage – and his musicals are loved the world over.
Following small-town Australian dancer Scott Hastings on his mission to take out the Pan Pacific Championships, Strictly Ballroom the Musical squeezes as many Aussie stereotypes as possible into lycra, feathers, and sequins – in true Luhrmann style.
While Strictly Ballroom opened in Sydney four years ago, the production’s rights only recently became available for amateur companies – leaving it open to make its Townsville premiere at the Civic Theatre this October.
Director Kylie Ball said fans of the original movie would not be disappointed.
“This musical has one of the few scripts that holds true – or aligns closely with – its movie,” Kylie said.
“You often find when the movie is produced first, there’s really cool songs or characters that may not make it to the stage production because of copyright issues or some creative decision along the way. You don’t get that with this adaptation of Strictly Ballroom … The drama, the storyline, and all the other expectations of the audience are brought to life on stage.
“When a show is already well-known as a movie, like this one, you really have to hold true to what [fans] remember and may want to see.”
These expectations will be delivered by the bucketload: recreating iconic set pieces such as the hills hoist and Coca-Cola billboard, staple costume items like Scott’s golden Paso Doble jacket, and transforming the Civic Theatre into an elegant and extravagant conglomeration of colour.
Kylie’s approach to Strictly Ballroom began with casting, where she uncovered a plethora of fresh musical theatre talent cast alongside some popular favourites.
“My vision for this show was to get ballroom dancers and the musical theatre crowd, mash them together, and see what they produce,” Kylie said.
“You go into the auditions with your own idea of what makes up each character, but then it’s about making sure the individuals cast in each role create their own journey. You cast them because you see them in that role and believe they’ll bring the best life to that character and overall story, and I enjoy working that way.
“The best thing about this show is how much the new talent are surprising themselves: we start with dancers who say they can’t sing, but then you work with them and there’s this amazing voice they never knew they had. And vice versa, a lot of the show’s singers are doing some dance steps for the first time in this show and are surprising themselves!
“A prime example is one of our leading ladies, Jessica Navin who plays Fran. Jess came in to audition for the ensemble because she has a bit of ballroom experience and liked the idea of the show. When she auditioned, she blew us away so I asked her to go out and have a read over Fran’s part. And now here she is, someone who has never done a musical before, centre stage.
“We have all of these new performers alongside an amazing array of experienced actors and actresses who really help to mentor and cultivate that talent. When you’re putting together a show, you’re looking at all of that: whether people are right for a role, how characters will build on each other, and making sure you are helping these fresh faces to learn and enjoy their musical experience.”
Costumes and sets are the next layers in creating Luhrmann’s world.
NQOMT will hire elements of these from Melbourne’s CLOC Musical Theatre Company, who staged Strictly Ballroom earlier this year.
“There’s lots of resources out there which can cost more for companies to create themselves rather than hire, so why recreate them if someone else has them available?” Kylie said.
“We’re very lucky with the sets, because we can spend our time on the finer details of the show rather than building them, the stress and outlay of where they would be stored until the show, and then what happens when we’re done with them. It becomes a financial burden not just on the production, but on the committee which is left with the pieces after the show.
“Then with the costumes, pieces like Scott’s iconic golden jacket and Fran’s beautiful Spanish dress don’t just take a lot of time to make, they’re expensive. When there are one-off pieces that really have no place in any other show, the fact we can hire them is amazing because it means our show will have the same authentic look without extravagant costs and the people who made them can feel justification and see their design live on across the country.”
Everything – from the costumes and sets to the outrageous characters and familiar songs – are Luhrmann all over.
“Strictly Ballroom is one of those iconic Australian productions that takes very typical pictures of Australian life and mashes them together onstage with full colour, glitz, sequins, and a cracking soundtrack. Even if you don’t know the characters or stories, it’s easy to follow – you’ll hate the people you’re supposed to hate and will fall in love with the larrikins. It really is a show like no other and I can’t wait for Townsville to see it.”
Catch NQOMT’s Strictly Ballroom the Musical at the Townsville Civic Theatre from 11-20 October with tickets available here.