If there is some global sequin shortage of which I’m not aware, Strictly Ballroom is to blame.
This show is glitzy.
But still with all the quintessential charm of 1990s regional Australia.
If I had to liken this show to a food, it would hands-down be the most sought after of all Aussie smokos – the Mrs Mac’s meat pie, eaten on a toolbox, slathered in tomato sauce, and stuffed full of glitter. Gorgeous and golden brown on the outside (thanks to all the fake tan) and so satisfyingly bogan on closer inspection.
Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 film Strictly Ballroom is a national treasure and the musical adaptation rings true to its screen roots. The show follows the story of Scott Hastings (Sam Stewart) a second-generation ballroom dancer who, tired of being coaxed along relentlessly by his overbearing mother Shirley (Rachel Cairns) and dance instructor Les Kendall (Chris Davis), decides to improvise some new steps in the middle of a prestigious competition on the Woongabbie Town Hall, unbeknownst to his fiery partner Liz Holt (Sarah Valinoti). Naturally, the move stirs an outrage among the dance community, particularly with the hot-headed traditionalist and President of National Australian Federation of Dance, Barry Fife (Brett Greenland). In order to follow his dreams – win or no win – Scott finds a new partner in the inexperienced Fran (Jessica Navin) and together they set out to shake up the dance world with their new steps.
From the opening scene, as Scott Hastings stands silhouetted against a twinkling night sky backdrop, Sam Stewart’s star quality is evident. Sam brings this determined, arrogant, loveable-nonetheless character to life with seeming ease, and proved his own years of dance training and musical theatre experience have left him in good stead to carry his first lead role and no doubt many more to come. Sam’s pairing with Jessica Navin is spot on. The two have a wonderful chemistry together, with both bringing strength and tenderness to Scott and Fran’s blossoming partnership. With no musical theatre experience, Jessica is impressive in her debut performance.
Another great pairing comes in the form of Rachel Cairns and Nick Spargo, who plays Shirley’s disenfranchised husband Doug. Rachel has tossed out the perfectly polished classical singing she is well-known for in favour of an outrageously ocker accent and it is a thing to behold! In a platinum blonde wig and astounding array of costumes – which includes the most ridiculously funny nightgown I’ve ever laid eyes on – Rachel makes Shirley the dance mum to rule all dance mums. And then there’s Doug. Poor Doug. Down-trodden. Brow-beaten. Hen-pecked. Forgotten. Despite all this, Nick sees Doug shine as one of the most endearing characters in this production. Doug flies in stark contrast to the stable of show ponies he’s surrounded by; and in his duet with Rachel, Nick treats us to skin-tingling, almost Tim Freedman-esque vocals that perfectly match the unassuming nature of the role and weave surprisingly well with Rachel’s own vocal strength.
What a delight to see Brett Greenland take on ‘the bad guy’. As Barry Fife, Brett is every single bogan baddie I remember seeing on ABC Kids – think Round the Twist’s Gribble, Mr Fish from Lift Off, Otto from… look, he’s basically just Mark Mitchell. As Barry, Brett is utterly detestable (hard to believe for anyone who actually knows Brett) – he has the laziest Australian drawl I’ve ever heard, an imposingly sinister presence and simply shines in his solo.
Brett’s ocker accent is most closely matched by the magnetic Sarah Valinoti who, as Liz, has a score to settle with Scott, in a move that ultimately sees her despairingly dragging around her drunken new dance partner Ken Railings (the hilarious Jeremiah Pau) as she attempts to keep her own Pan Pacifics dreams within reach. Sarah displays a great knack for comedic timing and a powerful stage presence. As Liz, it’s easy to picture this bogan beauty as the future Queen of the Big 4 Caravan Park.
Tina Seiferling and Darron Irwin are terrific as Abuela and Rico. The Milk Bar scene at the end of Act One is an absolute highlight of this show – it is visually stunning, full of fun, and tinged with the right amount of emotion thanks to Tina and Darron. As a real-life National Ballroom Champion, Darron’s performance is loaded with all the passion demanded by the Pasodoble; while Tina epitomises the wise old Abuela, full of heart-felt love for her granddaughter. Not only does Tina bring the house down during Abuela and Fran’s duet, she also took on learning an impressive whack of Spanish for this role.
This lead cast is supported tremendously by a string of sensational two-dimensional dance stereotypes: the entitled reigning Champ Tina Sparkle (Taryn Potts); smarmy MC JJ Silvers (Luke Reynolds); the cheesy best mate Wayne (Nathan Toll) and his sweet-and-savage partner Vanessa (Rachel Ahern) who are fed up playing second fiddle; the weasel-like instructor Les Kendall (Chris Davis); and the talented young up-and-comers Luke and Kylie (Zai Calliste and Kalani Guillien).
It was nice to see a lot of new faces scattered throughout the ensemble – a result of Director Kylie Ball’s vision to merge Townsville’s musical theatre and ballroom dancing communities in her casting. This decision, the masterful choreography of Melissa Prince (another Professional dancer Townsville is lucky to call its own) and, of course, the nature of the show itself gives regular musical theatre audiences some welcome respite from the box-steps and can-can lines that are often heavily relied on in this genre. No doubt it also challenged Vocal Director Tony Woodhouse and Vocal Assistant Alyssa Oliveri, who had many first-time singers to contend with; and who have overcome this challenge very well. (Although I’m still coming to grips with hearing ‘Time After Time’ translated into its Australian equivalent ‘Time Arfter Time’).
There are some moments where the tension of conflict and confrontation really could be heightened to greater extent and a few instances where cuing was slow, particularly when characters were supposed to be interrupting one another. No doubt the pace will pick up in these spots as the energy lifts with more people in the auditorium (I was treated to final dress rehearsal). I would encourage the new-comers among the cast to feel the room, pausing for applause and laughter as dictated by the audience, as many of these moments were lost, robbing the 150-odd attendees of the chance to show their appreciation. There was also some unusual phrasing and diction in some large patches of dialogue, which impacted clarity quite significantly.
However, these small gripes can be easily forgiven amid the visual spectacular that this show dishes up. The stunning sets and costumes – many hired from CLOC Musical Theatre in Melbourne and added to by a wonderful team of locals – are eye-boggling and there’s myriad clever little pieces stitched into the show including Wayne’s signature green and purple board shorts, Shirley’s glittering couch cushions and the laugh-inducing hip wiggles of Barry Fife and Les Kendall. The Orchestra, lead by Odette Baxter, was also on-point the whole way through, though I was disappointed to only spot percussionist Nik Marhin in the last number – he always looks like he’s having the time of his life when I spot him in a show band.
In a word this show is ‘fun’.
Congratulations to NQOMT on delivering an unashamedly Aussie classic, in all its sequin-clad colour and brightly-bronzed brilliance. Audiences are sure to enjoy it.
NQOMT’s Strictly Ballroom opens 11 October 2018 and runs until 20 October 2018. For more information and tickets, click here.